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.
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.