Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, May 2012
The history of nuclear power in this country can be summarized as the overwhelming adoption of the reactor types that were the least costly to develop. Other designs might have proved more economical to operate, or less prone to catastrophic breakdowns, had they been developed. But because the boiling-water and pressurized-water types took the early lead, and manufacturers pushed to deploy them and scale them up in size, they crowded others out. There were a few exceptions, but the market momentum of the development leaders was irresistible.1
One promising design that was pushed aside was the molten salt reactor (MSR). Developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and operated successfully for months at a time, the two prototypes answered most technical questions. As commercial reactors, they would have been more efficient and safer than the types that became standard in this country. But, due to a mix of political and personality issues, they were never funded to the commercially deployable stage.
"The more I learned about the lost history of thorium—especially the successful creation of a thorium-powered reactor at Oak Ridge in the 1960s and the career of the Oak Ridge director Alvin Weinberg, who championed safe thorium reactors and lost his job for it—the more astonished and outraged I became. Here was an inexpensive, safe, abundant energy source that could power every city on Earth, with enough left over for hundreds of millions of electric vehicles, for several millennia. And we were sitting on it, essentially doing nothing."
– Page 2
In his carefully researched and engagingly written history of the MSR, Richard Martin urges American government and business leaders to take another look at the technology. He describes its advantages as compelling, but takes care not to call it a panacea (though he seems to want to in one or two places.) This is wise, because the MSR (and its contemporary form, the LFTR, or liquid fluoride thorium reactor) share the main problem of conventional reactors: they produce highly radioactive waste which must be cooled and stored for long periods.2
Martin paints Alvin Weinberg as an idealist convinced that reason would carry the day. A true scientist cannot be otherwise; respect for the primacy of truth is marrow-deep in him. Some do graft on political acumen that enables them to deal with government at its most obtuse and short-sighted. I think that this diminishes their ability as scientists.
In any case, Weinberg offended powerful people in Washington by committing truth: He condemned the atomic airplane, and he pushed for development of molten salt reactors. He was right, both times; but being right in Washington is seldom enough. So in the United States today we have a nuclear industry built on the reactor type that was least costly to develop and impossible to make inherently safe. The reason the plants cost so much is due in large part to the layers of add-ons meant to compensate for breakdowns, and to the layers of regulations meant to ensure that they are built and maintained properly.
"'While an appropriate decision at the time, it now seems that light water may have been an unfortunate choice,' wrote Robin Cowan, a professor at the University of Strasbourg, in 1990. 'One of the interesting features of this history is the belief held by many that light water is not the best technology, either economically or technically.'"
– Page 219
Personality was a factor too, as Martin shows us. Weinberg was no match for the combative iconoclast Hyman Rickover (and neither was anyone else, apparently.) As the admiral in charge of Navy nuclear propulsion, Rickover settled on the pressurized-water reactor for submarines. It was the proper choice for ships; but since he trained virtually the entire original cadre of reactor technicians, and had influence at the AEC, civilian plants came to use the same design.
Martin, editorial director at the clean energy analysis firm Pike Energy, spent three years on this book. He pored over the MSR design documents and the papers of Alvin Weinberg, its original proponent. He traveled the world to interview contemporary advocates of thorium reactors. The result is a thorough and accessible description of the advantages of thorium as a reactor fuel.
However, there are some things he gets wrong. He tends to minimize the fact that thorium reactors, the LFTR included, produce highly radioactive waste. He does acknowledge it (see e.g. page 171) but tries to paint it as an advantage, saying that the spent fuel's extreme radioactivity will discourage diversion and that certain isotopes will make it unsuitable for bombs. These things are true, but they are also true for conventional reactors. Also, following Robert Bryce, he is too pessimistic on the potential of wind and solar energy.3
A touted feature of the LFTR is that these fission by-products can be removed from the circulating fuel while the reactor operates. However, Martin does not explain how this would be done and what complexity it would add to the design. Would it allow oxygen into the reactor? That would cause corrosion at the elevated operating temperatures of LFTR designs. And he spends no time on the question of where to store these substances until they can be reprocessed.
There are annoying lapses and contradictions. Australia is said to hold the largest reserves of thorium; but later in the book it's India which is the leader. Japan's Toshiba is now the owner of Westinghouse; but on page 227 he says it's Korean-owned. He writes that gas-cooled reactors have never been commercially developed. This is simply wrong. Perhaps the most troubling is the statement that the Fukushima disaster caused a run on "iodine-131" which is used to prevent thyroid cancer. This is backwards: Like previous reactor core breaches, Fukushima caused a run on ordinary iodine, which is taken to block the uptake by the thyroid of cancer-causing iodine-131 released from the core.
These and other errors are detailed in my Errata page. To sum up, while SuperFuel overstates the case for the LFTR in places, it gets the story mostly right. It makes two vital points: that the current nuclear industry in America cannot give us a satisfactory solution to our energy problems; and that our federal government, mired in hyperpartisan disputes and beholden to corporate interests, cannot do anything to change that picture. I'll give it a 4.5 rating, but I look forward to the paperback, which I hope will correct some of these mistakes. That's important, because thorium reactors, like wind and solar, can if properly developed make a significant contribution to solving our energy and environmental problems.
"Simply requiring big oil companies operating in the Gulf [of Mexico] to pay half the usual royalties for extracting oil from U.S. territorial waters would fully fund a nuclear transformation program through 2020, at no cost to U.S. taxpayers."
– Page 233
Martin ends the book with a chapter in which despair and hope are mingled. The despair comes from a perception of contemporary America as a country in irreversible decline; his hope, of course, springs from his view that thorium reactors can turn that around. Unfortunately, we won't get enough thorium reactors to do the job until we change the political conditions that block any significant change to the country's mix of energy sources.