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The Hubbub About Thorium: A Silver Bullet for Energy?

Thorium is an element that can produce nuclear power at a faster, cheaper, and more sustainable rate than current practices in the U.S. can.


More and more people are getting excited about thorium. And now it’s your turn. Nuclear energy from thorium has been presented as a magic bullet, the innovation the world has been waiting for—finally, the energy source we can all rally behind that will carry us safely into the future—from now until the robot wars and aliens force us to colonize other planets.
But does it deserve the hype? It does.
From the 1940s to‘70s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the U.S. proved the element thorium, like plutonium and uranium, can be used to create nuclear energy using Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors. But due to the push for bomb-making nuclear material back in the day, and subsequent vested interests, thorium fell by the wayside.
That's right, thorium, named after the hammer god guy, is a different nuclear energy element. If this is news to you, welcome to the party. But it actually turns out there's been a movement in the works for the last decade or so to resurrect the original research from Oak Ridge. Fifty years later, the thorium race is back on, and like never before. But the U.S. is late to the party we forgot we started. Right now, India, China, Japan, The Netherlands, and Brazil have concerted efforts under way, while the U.S. sits by its fracking itself.
The benefits: Thorium is super abundant; it’s super powerful (a golf ball-sized chunk equals your entire life’s energy consumption); it can’t be made into weapons (efficiently); and it reduces waste. And the reactor it would ideally use (the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor) can actually clean up past nuclear waste and transform it into carbon-free electricity and thermal energy, and desalinate water. Phew! That’s quite the list of superpowers, I know. But it’s true. I didn’t believe it at first either.
The debate: After delving into a number of articles, interviews, lectures, and endless forums, the main concern seems to be proliferation, as in making nuclear bombs. But I found this is not a real (or very well researched) concern. Experts tend to agree that if you were, say, North Korea or Iran, and maybe wanted to kinda sorta blow up western civilization with nukes, you'd go with the traditional, more efficient and proven method of making them (with plutonium and uranium).
So with bombs aside, I ask again, what's the hold up on thorium energy in the states? Looks like building thorium reactors is slow to take root in the U.S. for a few reasons, namely our entrenched system bent on uranium nuclear power and the big money interests preventing thorium from getting its time in the sun (ironically overshadowed by solar energy, but more significantly kept down by oil, coal, and traditional nuclear).
And what else is keeping us thorium-less? We need a regulatory body in D.C. (as part of the National Nuclear Security Administration) to actually understand thorium enrichment and the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). The creation of this new regulatory agency is the specific (daunting) action that needs to happen to make it more feasible here.
What to do: Learn more about thorium (fun! Links below!). And/or simply share this interesting bit of news with those you talk with about world-shaping matters, so when the time comes, when there finally is a measure that we could vote on, or speak up for, you (and your friend) will know what's going on, and share your support. Stay up on the latest. If you're psyched on the idea (as I was when first hearing about thorium, and continue to be), you might check out such gloriously nerdy sites as energyfromthorium.org and ithec.org. There you will get all kinds of science knowledge behind the element, but more importantly, see what’s in the works and how to show your support.
The more people who know about thorium, the better. China will beat us. But maybe that’s fine. Maybe that’s what it’ll take to get us going ... I mean, we need some way to power the wars against robots and aliens (and have non-bio-hazard-bubble-suit-wearing grandchildren). So share the gospel and may thorium have mercy on us all.
Here’s the TED Talk from Kirk Sorensen.
A short documentary on it, The Thorium Dream.
A promising-looking documentary on thorium that’s in production, The Good Reactor. (Help with their Kickstarter, coming soon!)
And a few great articles:
This month, challenge a neighbor to GOOD's energy smackdown. Find a neighbor with a household of roughly the same square footage and see who can trim their power bill the most. Throughout February, we'll share ideas and resources for shrinking your household carbon footprint, so join the conversation at good.is/energy. \n
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Thorium photo via Shutterstock\n
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