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Thorium, the New Green Nuke (wired.com)
124 points by unignorant on Dec 22, 2009 | hide | past | favorite | 32 comments

Finally this is getting attention! The politics of nuclear energy are so messed up that thorium reactor technology got buried under radioactive piles of propaganda, because, you know, if it's nuclear it must be bad.

Thorium was ignored because the government wanted to build a lot of nukes and uranium reactors allowed that to happen. The DoE did not have the budget or the manpower to research both solutions and private industry was not going to do the research so we ended up with uranium reactors for both military and civilian usage. Honestly, I think the US nuclear industry has done a fine job and has directly caused far fewer deaths and environmental damage than coal even ignoring the climate change issue.

It's due noting that India didn't ignore Thorium, holding 25% of the worlds reserve it saw well in advance that Th232 has a half-life as long as the known universe and gives the country energy independence. With current estimates, India essentially holds as much energy in its thorium reserves as the world has uranium reserves, meaning it itself could sell enough energy to likely run the world for 100 years, or run itself (at present demand) into the next millennium without a concern.

The US is presently worrying about where to find its energy independence, while India has already found its independence for the next 1,000 years.

I'm not sure where you got the 25% number, but thorium deposits exist all over the world. In the US, the carolinas are an available source. It's about as common as lead, so i'm not really sure we're predicting any shortages anywhere yet.

The USGS Minerals Commodity Summary for Thorium indicates that Australia, the US, India, and Norway have 80% of the world's thorium reserve base.

PDF warning: http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/thorium/mcs...

Thanks. Interestingly enough it seems that Australia, not India, is the winner in Thorium reserves, both economically exploitable and total. In total, the US and India have equivalent reserves, while India has more economically exploitable.

Sure, except the process still hasn't been made abosultely safe when it comes to thorium.

Nothing is "absolutely safe" -- certainly, fossil fuels aren't. Conventional uranium reactors aren't. They're extremely safe, far beyond what I consider a reasonable cause for the fear that they're treated with, but they are not "absolutely" safe.

Frankly I'm not really sure what "absolutely safe" would even mean; even a hydroelectric dam could break, given an earthquake or intentional sabotage.

That's not a realistic criteria for any energy source; instead, we should be talking about managing and containing risks.

Wait, here in Germany they have built a Thorium based reactor for commercial use.

You can read of its fate here:


Good luck with other variants of Thorium reactors. I'm pretty sure if there is ever one built, it will not be in Germany...

The Wikipedia article for Thorium as a fuel is surprisingly detailed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium_fuel_cycle

This is also a great video (google talk) about the technology: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWUeBSoEnRk&sn - shortened to 16 minutes, very well worth watching.

A little fast paced, but very good stuff, thanks. Do you know of any more in-depth videos on Thorium reactors?

"Fuel input per gigawatt output: 250 tons raw uranium?"

Come on, Wired. 250 tons is a quantity, and gigawatt is a rate. Is it supposed to be a gigawatt times the lifetime of the plant?

I was surprised they didn't compare it to the energy consumption of the Library of Congress

Knowledge is power.


You might need 250 tons to get enough mass to get the power up to a gigawatt. While you are correct that the units are inconsistent, in a reactor you can't independently adjust power and fissile mass. (Or more accurately, you can lower the power output by a given mass, but you can't easily increase it.)

it's probably 250 tons / year for a 1 gigawatt plant

Probably not... re-fueling is a very time-intensive process. (The reactors I worked on were designed to be re-fueled every 25-30 years.)

250 tons for a 1 gigawatt constant output seems more likely to me.

I can clarify this. It's 250 tonnes of raw uranium, from which we get 35 tonnes of 3% enriched uranium, which give one gigawatt-year of electricity in a typical light water reactor.

That might make sense if they're talking about the mass of the entire fuel rod assemblies (which all become high-level waste, since we don't reprocess in the U.S., instead treating reactors as furnaces that simply "burn" Uranium). However, it seems suspiciously large if they're actually talking about the amount of U-235 that's fissioned off.

Anyone interested in doing a startup which could help push thorium energy forward? I know and understand nothing about physics, but maybe there's room for programmers to carve out their niche in something useful here.

Energy is the biggest problem humans face today.

You would probably require a ridiculous amount of VC funding to even make a plant. Also, you are competing with people with PhD's in the field doing research.

competing with people with PhDs

Yes. This is the tragedy of programming and computer "science": you know everything about making tools and writing code to other people's specs — and nearly nothing about solving actual real-world problems. That's why I mentioned carving out a niche. I didn't intend to build a whole plant, but a company which comes up with software which helps people building plants might have a fighting chance.

Sounds like a solutions searching for a problem. Let's wait for the US to decide to build q new reactor first.

You would also probably require experience writing real-time, fail-safe systems (like vxWorks) and a very high government security clearance.

I wonder how many wind/solar/bio energy proponents are even aware of this.

I remember listening to a talk by ex-CERN director Carlo Rubbia pushing accelerator-driven Th reactors sometime in the early 90s.

It's not new. Maybe it's the Betamax of nuclear technology... ;-)

Interesting. Just a few days ago a friend sent me a link to a site he's involved with on this subject. www.thoriumenergyalliance.com

This is fascinating. A left of field approach to the problems of uranium based nuclear power. Let's hope that opportunity meets preparedness here and this can make it to an inflection point.

Another good source of information about Thorium:


This article is a little bit silly in the way it portrays Thorium reactors as being pushed aside for only a few reasons. Even aside from the nuclear weapons angle (quite important during the cold war) in 1973 Uranium/Plutonium reactor technology was vastly more mature than Thorium reactor technology (that is still true today). When the choice is between funding a well-known nth generation commercial reactor design (using Uranium) and sinking unknown quantities of R&D dollars into a program to develop a commercial reactor design (using Thorium) the choice is obvious.

We should probably be investing considerably more money into Thorium reactor designs (though the same applies for Uranium reactor designs as well), but the picture this article portrays of a more worthy underdog being sidelined for petty reasons is very misleading.

Thorium is the fuel of the future. Thorium is safe to handle. Thorium energy technology is totally emissions free! Thorium has an energy density of 292 time that of Hydrogen. One gram of thorium is equal to 20 million grams of coal or 7350 gallons of gasoline.

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