Imagine a world with safe, CO2 free energy that’s available 24/7. Science fiction? No, science fact. In the 1950’s and 60’s, scientists explored designs for a Thorium-based nuclear reactor. Unlike today’s uranium-based reactors, a thorium reactor is unpressurized (can’t explode), has minimal waste, and inherently safe, with the fuel draining into a storage tank if power is lost. Here’s a quick TED talk video that explains this technology more:
So, why was this promising technology abandoned in the 60’s? To understand this, you need to understand our society at the time. We were in the midst of the Cold War, and, well, one byproduct of uranium-based power plants is plutonium, which makes great bombs. Thorium reactors didn’t. End of story.
One other great part about thorium, is that it’s currently considered a waste byproduct when mining for rare earth minerals, and is incredibly abundant on this planet. This is not a difficult fuel to obtain.
More info at Treehugger, Smartplanet’s coverage on Japan’s efforts here, and more discussion of the safety of thorium here. Lastly, there’s a great website on this topic, appropriately named EnergyFromThorium.com.
The following video is much longer but delves into Thorium reactors in more detail if you’re interested:
So why isn’t this being pursued now??
Jeff, it actually IS being pursued now, just at a relatively low level (compared to money being put into oil/gas/solar). As for why it’s not progressing at a faster pace, I consider this an example of economic momentum…large industries are built up over time, and change comes slowly, especially as they resist that change in order to protect their business.
Bill Gates and Richard Branson are both backing alternate nuclear energy power technologies that also appear promising (link) so I’m optimistic that, if not thorium, there will be at least SOME viable, safe nuclear energy technology on the market in less than a decade. The problem will continue to be overcoming that economic momentum though…no one is going to want to shut down a functional power plant that may have decades of life left in it.