Thorium reactors and climate change

New Orleans     I’m trying to keep an open mind, OK? I know we’re all supposed to hate nuclear energy and be scared of total disasters, right? There’s Three-Mile Island in Pennsylvania. I’ve read the books and seen the series on HBO about Chernobyl. I’ve personally visited Japan to see Fukushima and the area evacuated. I’m skeptical, as most of us have become, but I’ve had to take a second look.

First, a friend sent me a book, A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow by Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist. They were a little too cute and gung-ho for my taste, but their argument, presented exhaustively, was that if we really wanted to get serious about climate change, we had to reconsider nuclear energy. There is little argument that it is cleaner, but they argue that it is also safer. Despite the concerns triggered by these earlier accidents and near disasters, they argued that there was little loss of life and compared to the impact of coal-fired plants, it was infinitesimally small.

They mentioned a technology that was tried years ago in Oak Ridge involving thorium, rather than uranium, that was rejected then, but might even be superior to what we were doing now. I ended up talked to the acting CEO of ThorCon on Wade’s World named Lars Jorgenson, who made a similar case from several other angles.

Thorium is found in abundance in Australia, the United States, and Canada, but also in India, Venezuela and other countries. It produces less radiation than uranium, and because of the process of producing energy the cooling mechanism is radically different using a salt solution that means leaks are basically water and the storage of any spent fuels is much simpler and easier than the endless process for used rods.

ThorCon is one of about fifty companies according to Jorgenson that are trying to bring thorium powered nuclear plants to market. ThorCon’s pitch is directed at developing countries based on their rising energy demands and their slimmer budgets. The company relies on a design that can be fabricated at a shipyard in South Korea for about $100 million and then shipped and installed for another $100 million or so. It’s not a small operation, but compared to our experience with the giant cooling towers in current nuclear power plants, it has a smaller footprint in addition to a smaller price tag. ThorCon seems close to convincing the government in Indonesia to allow it to build a plant, and India seems like a huge prize.

Does this make sense? Don’t take my word, I’m no expert here, but given where we are on global warming, it’s hard to write off all of these arguments without giving it another try.

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