Some years ago, I found this video concerning the activist Helen Caldicott, a woman completely consumed with the goal of turning off every single nuclear power plant and destroying every nuclear bomb. It was two hours well spent. The video easily debunked numerous claims that Caldicott has made about nuclear power and shows that she has little visible grasp on the facts.
But there were a couple of other things presented in that video that really caught my eye. First is this statistic: the light water uranium reactors we run today consume only 6% of the fuel. Then what is left of the fuel becomes “waste” and that has to be stored someplace where the radiation is shielded for better than 200,000 years. That means that 94% of the fuel is wasted after many months of mining, enrichment, and processing.
As I write this, I’m reminded of a story my dad once told me, as a mockery of the old Communist China. He told a story of a man who visited China to see their jobs program. They were still figuring out what to have people do, so some of them were using shovels to carry dirt from one pile to another and back again. The visitor suggested that “if you want to create jobs that way, give them spoons instead of shovels.”
That is how I see the nuclear industry. It is as if almost by choice, the nuclear industry has picked the most plausibly inefficient way to build and run power plants and there is an entire industry built up around this inefficiency. Much of that is subsidized by you and me, through tax dollars, and most of us have no say in it.
Here is the other thing that caught my eye, well, my ear:
“Every time mankind learned to access a new source of energy, it has led to profound societal implications. Human beings have had slaves for thousands and thousands of years, and when we learned how to make carbon our slave instead of other human beings, we started to learn how to be civilized people. Thorium has a million times the energy density of the carbon-hydrogen bond. What could that mean for human civilization? Because we’re not going to run out of this stuff. We will never run out. It is simply too common.”
That’s what Kirk Sorensen says in the same video, and that same clip can be found in many videos where he is featured. Sorensen was working at NASA when he discovered literature about a working thorium nuclear reactor. After years of research, he founded Flibe, a company dedicated to commercializing thorium as a source of nuclear power. He knows the physics behind it and he’s not the only one who does, and Flibe is not the only US company with the same goal.
I’ve considered what is possible when we develop a plentiful power source that is cheaper than coal and that will not be exhausted at any time in the foreseeable future. Mankind will be able to build machines for any purpose to do anything so long as there is a power source for it. Thorium is the power source for anything. You can hold your personal lifetime supply of power in the palm of your hand with thorium — don’t worry, it won’t hurt you. Here are just a few things that come to mind:
- We can use that energy to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere to create the same liquid fuels we use in our vehicles until they can be replaced with electric vehicles. Then when we’re all driving electric cars, we can still draw CO2 out of the atmosphere to make other useful materials like bricks for construction, until we get back down to below 300ppm as we had before the industrial revolution.
- We can use that energy to split water to create hydrogen fuel.
- We can use that energy to desalinate water so that there is a fresh water supply wherever you need it or want it.
- We can use thorium power plants to burn all the nuclear waste and the nuclear warheads we have built. All of them. Destroying every nuclear warhead is my only point of agreement with Caldicott.
- We can create a universal recycler — melt down anything into elements, extract the elements and reuse them for something else. Sure beats mining.
- We can use thorium power as a bridge until we get to nuclear fusion, which I admit always seems to be about 50 years away, but why not have two tracks?
The thorium molten salt reactor is a reactor that is so safe, so compact, and so versatile, that it could be placed anywhere work needs to be done. With better locations, transmission power losses due to resistance in power lines are reduced to a minimum. These reactors have passive, walk-away safety built in, so accidents and terrorism are moot. They generate 1% of the waste of the light water reactors we use now, waste that is mostly valuable isotopes for medical and industrial uses.
Competition in this market is brewing, too. Unfortunately, other countries will have them before we do. Why? The Department of Energy refused for many years to write regulations that permit the use of thorium as fuel. In 2010, Orrin Hatch wrote a bill to require the DOE to write those regulations, but that bill died in committee, killed by Democrats terrified of going soft on nuclear.
I’m going to go out on a limb here, so what follows is probably at best speculation. but I believe that the following is very much worth considering.
Over the years, I’ve read articles that suggested that the wealthiest among us, the super rich, learned some important lessons from the 60s and 70s. What they learned is that it’s not a good idea to have a healthy middle class. Why not? A healthy middle class will have the money and the time to protest when the government fails to honor the will of (most of) the people.
It would seem that to the elites, giving people a cheap, plentiful and clean source of energy is exactly the wrong thing to do. Oh, we can have solar. But that’s not as consistent as a nuclear power plant. We can have wind, but it’s not always windy. Every study that’s ever been done shows that we need something to carry baseload and that’s either carbon or nuclear. When Germany killed their nuclear power plants, they ran coal plants to provide the base load they need — that’s in the video, too. Happily, they’re working on closing all of their coal plants.
Thorium promises to be cheaper than coal. The technology is proven. We just need a regulatory framework, something that is already in place in China, our supposed adversary. I’ve been looking for something that the Trump Administration is doing that I might agree with. Their efforts to shore up existing nuclear power plants and invest in new technologies is a step in the right direction. I don’t agree with all of the work they’re doing here, as some of it appears to include subsidies, but it’s still better than doing nothing.
Multiple companies and startups are working on the problem of carbon-free power. ThorCon is one of them. ThorCon has developed a completely modular, walk-away safe power plant that uses thorium and uranium, and it does so far more efficiently than our aging power plants do now. ThorCon estimates that they can produce 20 gigawatts of capacity every year. And that is just one company. And those power plants can produce energy that is cheaper than coal.
I’m a fan of nuclear power because nuclear power has roughly 1 million times the energy density of carbon fuels. The European Nuclear Society offers the following comparisons on their website:
With a complete combustion or fission, approx. 8 kWh of heat can be
generated from 1 kg of coal, approx. 12 kWh from 1 kg of mineral oil
and around 24,000,000 kWh from 1 kg of uranium-235. Related to one
kilogram, uranium-235 contains two to three million times the energy
equivalent of oil or coal. The illustration shows how much coal, oil
or natural uranium is required for a certain quantity of electricity.
Thus, 1 kg natural uranium — following a corresponding enrichment and
used for power generation in light water reactors — corresponds to
nearly 10,000 kg of mineral oil or 14,000 kg of coal and enables the
generation of 45,000 kWh of electricity. (emphasis mine)
Newer, safer designs and technologies put this kind of energy efficiency within our grasp. While there are many who think we can get by without nuclear energy, there are plenty of scientists who see the value of nuclear power. They see the energy densities. They see that the technology is available. They see that it’s really a matter of public policy to get it running.
I’m also a fan of solar power, wind power, geothermal power, and just about every other green tech out there. I am aware that the sun drops 1000 terawatts of power on the earth every day and that we would only need a sliver of that, roughly 18 terawatts to keep civilization humming along. But I don’t think that just renewable energy can do it alone.
In fact, I think thorium power qualifies as renewable power for several reasons. First, much of the technology for green power, mainly windmills and solar power panels, require rare earth elements. When we mine those rare earth elements, we also mine thorium. We are digging up tons of thorium and storing it because there is no other commercial use for it yet. Thorium power plants provide a commercial use for thorium that we find mixed in with the other rare earth metals we need for all of the other green energy systems we build. So we might as well build thorium power plant infrastructure to use it.
Another reason thorium qualifies as a renewable resource is that we’re never, ever going to run out of this stuff. It is estimated that we have enough thorium to power our current civilization for 5,000 years. The uranium that we burn in our power plants now is about as expensive as platinum.
Lastly, even if we could depend on green renewable energy from other sources, we’d want to have a way to burn all of the nuclear waste and the warheads that we hope we will never use. Burning all of the existing nuclear waste means we relieve ourselves of the storage facilities, the costs of storage and the need to preserve something safely, for 200,000 years. Thorium could become the new, clean, nuclear energy we need until fusion lights up. And thorium could help us to shed that waste. Even fusion power plants can’t do what a thorium molten salt reactor can do with nuclear waste.
We need a thorium energy infrastructure to power the world, burn the waste and provide us with a bridge to a sustainable energy future.
Originally published on February 8th, 2015, my blog, The Digital Firehose. Revised for grammar, new information and developments.