“Too good to be true”. I think we all have an innate suspicion of stories that sound like the stories about the possibilities of thorium.
Scientists discover an abundant, cheap chemical element that can produce energy safer and more reliably than any other substance. It doesn’t produce ugly by-products that can be used in bombs. It doesn’t produce emissions. It can be used in numerous small reactors that can be buried in the ground and managed remotely. It’s will be so cheap, they won’t bother to meter the electricity.
We used to hear this kind of talk about nuclear energy. Thanks to Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and now Fukushima, we don’t now.
Anyone my age or older probably remembers hearing about some amazing carburetor developed secretly by General Motors that could give cars incredible fuel mileage, but which was suppressed by GM and the oil industry and the government, for obvious reasons.
I’m not saying definitively that there never was such a carburetor. And I would never say it wasn’t likely that the oil industry– if they could– would have suppressed it. I’m skeptical that if such a device really were possible, that someone else somewhere else (India? China? Japan?) would have not have developed it as well, and we’d know about it. Almost every brilliant innovation in industry was developed in fits and starts in many different locations by many different people. There is almost no invention of which you could say, without this particular person, it would never have happened. [Skeptical? Check out most of Thomas Edison’s “inventions”: almost all of the important ones, and almost all of the unimportant ones, were being worked on elsewhere at about the same time– or even before!]
Any reasonable, well-informed person would immediately conclude that thorium is all pie in the sky. If it were true, we don’t doubt, nobody could have stopped it. The benefits are too wildly important. China or India would have developed it. Come on…
So, when I read about thorium, that’s what I ask myself. If it was really as good as claimed, is it really possible that it would have been resisted.
If it’s possible to believe that, here is why: to develop an efficient, effective thorium reactor, you need to invest billions of dollars and years of research and development. No individual researcher can hope to prove that thorium is viable by himself. But to get the kind of funding you need to prove it, you need the collaboration of the powers that be– the Senators and Congressmen who are all arguably in the pockets of billion dollar industries– oil and conventional nukes, and the military-industrial complex.
The military-industrial complex rejected thorium because it did not produce, as a byproduct, the plutonium needed to develop weapons of mass destruction. Hyman Rickover, who ruled the U.S. nuclear energy program in all of it’s facets, wanted that deadly plutonium very badly. He wanted the U.S. to be able to kill millions of people if it had to. It if really, really had to. Because it would never do so if it didn’t really, really have to.
So we got thousands of nuclear missiles and bombs, enough to kill the entire world over and over and over again until no possibility of human life existed ever again. And our lousy, dangerous nuclear power plants.
When I think of it that way, I don’t think you’d have to be especially paranoid to conclude that it is quite possible that thorium really is at least as promising as it’s proponents say.
You would have to believe that the powers that be, for understandable reasons, stopped it.
Now, in the realm of understandable reasons, the most understandable is self-interest.
You also have to understand that as promising as Thorium is, it would take years and years and billions of dollars to develop it… precisely what was invested in uranium instead, because the U.S., leading the way, decided it needed nuclear bombs more badly than public safety. Ditto the Soviet Union.
So why, in the face of global warming, isn’t it being promoted today? Well, it is, in India and China. Stay tuned.
It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to believe that the oil and nuclear industries would both stop at nothing to prevent development of thorium reactors.
Indeed, India now does have a thorium reactor development project under way, and China appears to be working on one.
Some skeptics, at least, argue against thorium because … well, why? Because we’re already here is why.
In the U.S., Senators Harry Reid (D) and Orrin Hatch (R) have co-sponsored a bill that would allocate $250 million to the Department of Energy for research into thorium reactors.
The primary challenge, they say, is that the special containers for the thorium can degrade due to exposure to radiation and salt. It will take some research to find a solution.
It’s in the nature of new, promising technologies that proponents exaggerate, in their minds, the benefits, and minimize the challenges.