As we creep sprint closer and closer to our global warming tipping point, some countries are seeking viable alternatives to the dirty oil- or coal-fired power plants and oil-based engines that power our economy.

It’s gratifying and encouraging that so many countries are adopting alternative energy solutions like solar, wind and geothermal power plants, at industrial and single-home levels, and are making a significant impact on global warming.  But other countries and regions have decided that nuclear energy is the way to go.  And unfortunately, today’s heavy water-based, uranium-powered plant designs have a host of problems—mainly accident and radioactive waste risks—that make them highly undesirable to most of the population.

But what if I told you there was a better nuclear power plant design—one that was safer, cheaper, more secure, and even less radioactive than current nuclear plant designs—and that the technology was ready for use, right now?  Would you like that?

Sure you would.

thorium ball
This thorium ball holds enough energy to supply an individual for a lifetime (based on average use per person in the USA).

A Popular Science article in June, 2011 described a nuclear power plant using the molten-salt system (an MSR reactor) and powered, not by uranium, but by thorium—a safer, more plentiful and less radioactive element than uranium.  The thorium-based MSR was experimented with back in the latter half of the 1960s, and proved itself superior to uranium-powered designs in many ways:

  • MSR reactors use very simple means to shut down the reaction in the event of a problem, making it more meltdown-proof than any other existing reactor design;
  • Thorium is four times as abundant as uranium and is easier (and therefore cheaper) to mine, in part because of its lower radioactivity;
  • One pound of thorium produces as much power as 300 pounds of uranium–or 3.5 million pounds of coal;
  • Thorium is 99% burned in a nuclear reaction, compared to 3% of uranium, creating significantly less waste;
  • Thorium is not fissionable after use in a reactor, making it useless for weapons applications;
  • Thorium waste radioactivity lasts a few hundred years, versus uranium’s tens of thousands of years.

A thorium-powered plant is also significantly smaller, easier and cheaper to run than uranium-based plants, meaning there can be more of them, and they can be closer to urban areas where the power is needed… even multiple plants servicing an urban area by districts.  An entire plant can fit on a city block or two: It doesn’t outwardly look like a traditional nuclear plant, with all of its massive cooling towers and storage containers; and it can be encased in a more traditional building facade to make it blend in to the neighborhood.

In fact, it’s hard to decide what’s the best feature about a thorium-based MSR: The fact that it generates less radioactive waste, which stays radioactive for a much shorter time frame; the fact that it’s an inherently safer design, much less likely to suffer a catastrophic failure compared to uranium-powered plants; or the fact that it produces no weapons-grade byproducts.  But one thing is sure: If ever there was a better alternative to coal- and oil-based power systems, nuclear is it… safe nuclear is it in spades… and thorium-based MSRs sound like exactly what we need.

I’d even go so far as to recommend that the US not only promote it’s design, but assist every developing and developed country in assembling their own thorium-based MSRs, which would not only help those countries to develop, but would do so without adding to global warming or creating weapons-grade fissionables that threaten national (and global) security.

Think about it: If the US had gone to Iran and offered to assist in building thorium-based MSRs, there might be less (or maybe even no) concern today about Iran’s creating and stockpiling fissionables for use in weapons.  And it probably wouldn’t hurt the US’ image if other countries knew we were switching from uranium to thorium plants, and producing less fissionables ourselves.  Think of how many countries this move might’ve helped to stabilize, as well as improving US standings worldwide.

Capitol Power Plant
The Capitol Power Plant in Washington, DC; old energy tech, blocks from the Capitol, and ripe for replacement with a thorium-based MSR.

To get things kick-started, a new pilot project is in order; and if the US wants to initiate a demo program, proving the system’s worth and the government’s confidence in it, I have the perfect suggestion: There’s the ancient coal-fired Capitol Power Plant near the US Capitol in Washington, DC, chugging out soot as fast as it chugs out power for that venerable institution.  That plant could be replaced with a newer, cleaner, safer thorium-based MSR, providing power to the Capitol and the surrounding neighborhood and proving its capability (and the US government’s confidence) to the world.

Unfortunately, few outside of experts and engineers know much about thorium-based MSRs, or their significant differences to other nuclear plants; and because the country adopted uranium-based plants in the sixties, there are no guidelines or regulations in place for building and maintaining thorium-based MSRs, holding back their support and development.  A significant education program needs to be put in place, so the public and the government will know about this technology and its advantages, and will then push to implement it, especially in areas where our existing uranium-based plants are aging, decaying and pushing (or already pushed past) retirement.

Candu reactor in Qinshan, ChinaIt’s understood that we should not pass up on using alternatives like solar, wind, tidal and geothermal energy wherever we can, and actively finding new ways to conserve and more efficiently use energy.  But in situations where nuclear power may be more practical or desirable, we should be switching to safer, cleaner, cheaper, more secure thorium-based MSR plants, asap.

 Update:

World’s first thorium reactor ready to be built for cheaper, safer nuclear energy

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