Skip to content

Thorium, Godzilla, and duck-and-cover

September 17, 2011

Even though I’ve been blogging  about energy issues I haven’t yet focused on the nuclear industry.  In fact, my typing finger memory tells me this post constitutes the first time I’ve hammered out the word “nuclear” in quite some time.

When I was child growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s the word “nuclear”  evoked mixed images, with Godzilla and “duck and cover” nuclear attack drills  on the one hand, and the shiny prospect of boundless energy for a Jetsons future on the other.  The succession of events over subsequent decades eroded the Jetsons visions pretty thoroughly.  Those events (and their attending cultural symbols) have included the Cuban missile crisis, Dr. Strangelove, Three Mile Island, Chernobylconcerns over the disposal of nuclear waste, Homer Simpson,  and more recently, the nuclear leak after the tsunami in Japan,  and the explosion in the French nuclear plant  [CORRECTION:  A reader pointed out to me that the explosion was not in a nuclear plant, but was in a waste storage facility — the explosion was an industrial accident, not a nuclear one]    So the popular image of nuclear power has become far removed from the optimistic visions of flying automobiles and boundless cheap energy of the 1950s.

Nevertheless, as I was browsing for technology and energy articles this morning, I ran across a blog entry on Forbes entitled “Is Thorium the Biggest Energy Breakthrough Since Fire?  Possibly“, written by William Pentland.

Thorium is an abundant radioactive material, which is being increasingly used as a nuclear fuel because of its abundance and relative safety (I say relative safety because, in powdered form, it can ignite spontaneously, and ingesting it can cause liver failure).  I can’t remember having heard of thorium before I read Mr. Pentland’s blog entry, but it evidently has boosters and enthusiasts worldwide.  Last week a thorium advocacy organization called the Weinberg Foundation was launched to promote the building of nuclear reactors based on thorium.

To be honest, I’ve always harbored a sort of vaguely hostile agnosticism toward the nuclear industry.  On the one hand the frequent disaster and mishaps,  and near disasters and near mishaps, combined with the difficulties of disposing of the waste,  have led me to the conclusion that there are much better prospects out there for our energy future.  On the other hand I’ve been repelled by the alarmist Luddism of many anti-nuclear activists, who not only want to halt the current generation of nuclear plants, but who often seem to want to block all research and consideration of uses of nuclear energy.

So what do I think about thorium?  I don’t know yet.  Skeptical alarm bells go off in my head whenever I hear or read enthusiastic advocacy for any solution to any problem (even when I’m generally attracted to that solution, as I am to solar power).  Every solution has its downsides, and the lack of a track record for thorium-based nuclear facilities  leads me to believe that the cheer-leading may be premature.  But given thorium’s evident advantage in safety over uranium it might be worth considering.

On the strong  plus side I haven’t seen any indication that thorium results in infestations of gigantic,  lumbering, bipedal, radiation-spewing lizards, so I guess we can all breathe easy in that respect.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2011 1:53 am

    It’s not just a lack of track record, France’s Areva have been working on Thorium reactors for a while now, and as yet are unable to offer a fully viable solution for a full scale reactor. The theory is right, Thorium is a great choice for nuclear, but the practice seems to be a little (or possibly a long) way off for now.

    The Chinese are actively investing in Thorium as a possibility too – but it’s still too early to say when they’ll be ready for implementation.

  2. September 21, 2011 9:45 pm

    Interesting. I’ll have to check out the stuff Areva’s been doing. A reader sent me a note with a link to an article about Thorium powered cars under development. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but there seems to be a lot of interest in Thorium, an element I wasn’t even familiar with until I read the Forbes article.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: