The thorium mines of Triton!

That was my first mental response to this article on thorium, the apparent wonder nuclear element of the 21st century (via Instapundit):

After it has been used as fuel for power plants, the element leaves behind minuscule amounts of waste. And that waste needs to be stored for only a few hundred years, not a few hundred thousand like other nuclear byproducts. Because it’s so plentiful in nature, it’s virtually inexhaustible. It’s also one of only a few substances that acts as a thermal breeder, in theory creating enough new fuel as it breaks down to sustain a high-temperature chain reaction indefinitely. And it would be virtually impossible for the byproducts of a thorium reactor to be used by terrorists or anyone else to make nuclear weapons.

[Alvin] Weinberg and his men proved the efficacy of thorium reactors in hundreds of tests at Oak Ridge from the ’50s through the early ’70s. But thorium hit a dead end. Locked in a struggle with a nuclear- armed Soviet Union, the US government in the ’60s chose to build uranium-fueled reactors — in part because they produce plutonium that can be refined into weapons-grade material. The course of the nuclear industry was set for the next four decades, and thorium power became one of the great what-if technologies of the 20th century.

…which is probably why thorium mines featured so prominently as a trope in Golden Age science fiction, at that. I ran this story past MoeLane.com’s Science Advisory Council, but she didn’t know anything in particular about thorium: personally, I suspect that there may be a few other reasons besides the Cold War need for plutonium to downplay thorium reactors (possibly involving the phrase ‘hot liquid fluoride salts’). That being said, if it pans out I’ll take cheap power from mildly warm rocks any day of the week, particularly if doing so puts the antiwar nuke crowd into an advanced state of frothing religious hysteria.

Hey, I never claimed to be a Buddha.

Moe Lane

PS: If we’re going to have thorium mines, could somebody maybe come up with a man-portable atom-blaster?  Or maybe a vibro-shield?  Hey, it never hurts to ask.

PPS: You know you want this.


  • […] One Divine Hammer. […]

  • Wombat-socho says:

    Afraid we’re going to have to wait for Walter Delany to come along and invent those, Moe.

  • Brett says:

    It’s a really good technology, and thanks to some crazy ideas from the Cold War (look up Project Pluto some time, it’s the second most nuts/awesome nuclear drive system I’ve ever heard of, only Project Orion beats it out for pure levels of crazy awesome) we even know it can be made to work.

    The real problem is that the same companies that might investigate it (nuclear reactor design/construction groups) make most of their money not off building reactors, but off providing the very expensive fuel-rods to refuel the things. Which is a step that a Thorium Salt reactors skip, which means that there is a negative financial incentive for them to look into it.

    Political issues are that it’s a) technically a Breeder Reactor (though dreadfully inefficient at it, you might get enough material to start turning into a nuke out of one every few years, and that will impact badly on it’s operational efficiency, and on top of that there are some fairly simple design changes that can be made that make it a bit less efficient overall, and means the output is unusable for anything more advanced then a really crappy ‘dirty bomb’), and b) for best results it has a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant on-site, as part of it’s constant running cycle. The rules on fuel reprocessing sites are a lot more restrictive then the reactors themselves.

    Safety factors for them are very good too, the only way to cause a real event with one (that doesn’t just end up with it shutting down and costing a lot of money to restart) would require somebody to attach explosives to it, and that will mess up any reactor design. Main problem from a safety point of view is that you _have_ to pull the fuel out if you’re shutting it down for a long while, because otherwise you end up with Fluorine gas build-up, and that’s some nasty stuff to have sitting around. The Project Pluto people found that one out the hard way. The waste that comes out is nasty stuff too, but because of that, ‘burns off’ very quickly (as compared to standard light-water reactors). The really cute thing though … you can use a Thorium Salt reactor to burn the waste from a ‘normal’ reactor into something a lot easier to deal with.

    All and all it’s a heck of a lot better then current reactors, and I’m a big fan of them. Last I heard most research into them is happening in Japan (Sony of all people, go fig), and typically by companies that don’t have a stake in current reactor tech.

    Me, I’m a pro nuclear power greenie … again, go fig. I’ll take nuclear power over fossil fuels any day (less of a radiation hazard for one, especially compare to coal), and they have less of a ‘footprint’ then a lot of green solutions too, though the latter depends a bit on where you are … where I live, New Zealand, there are some really cheap alternative sources for power, so reactors (or any other thermal plant) are a lot less cost effective.

    — Brett

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