In the wake of Fukushima, I can hardly believe I’m saying this.
Nuclear energy – that field I’ve loved to hate, that clean-energy-with-the-out-sized risks, that “nuclear” word which nearly dissuaded me from having children back in the 1980’s – nuclear energy (of a not-often-heard-of type) could come back out of hiding to address our urgent need for clean, plentiful energy in the 21st century.
I am not talking about the solid/uranium-fueled nuclear energy of ours and our fathers’ generation. I am talking about the largely benign liquid/thorium salt-based nuclear energy -- the nuclear energy that lost the technology battle in the heated context of the Cold War (because we already had solid uranium reactors to make plutonium for bombs).
To be more precise, I am talking about Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR) and the chemical-stability-creating role of Molten Salt Reactors (MSR). Never heard of them? Well, first-generation nuclear physicists knew them pretty well. And while our country nominally includes thorium-based solutions in its long-term thinking, the Chinese and others have embraced it now.
Though I cannot describe a thorium-based nuclear reactor, Kirk Sorenson can, and does so eloquently in this TEDxyyc talk from earlier this year. Its safety features are largely inherent, relying on passive natural physical dynamics and not on highly engineered processes which go to great lengths to overcome nature. In fact, Dr. Alex Cannara, an engineer and green activist who first alerted me to thorium, describes it as "a hot pot of melted salt with nothing to explode".
Alex put the critical role of thorium-based nuclear energy into perspective at the 3rd Annual Thorium Energy Alliance Conference in Washington D.C. In this presentation, he reminds us that this technology is one of the safe nuclear power options recommended to JFK & Congress 49 years ago. Based on their recommendations, we are 700 emissions-free power plants away from where we should be. The proposed Canadian oil-shale plants & pipeline to us will cost over $1 trillion to get just 1 million barrels of oil per day. That trillion $ could quadruple our current nuclear power via LFTRs, all while reducing emissions the way we must in order to save our oceans and to contain the impacts of climate change.
So now that you know -- the next time you hear an expert talking about nuclear energy, ask them about thorium fluoride. If they seem unfamiliar, respectfully ask them to please get familiar – and fast. Let’s get this highly potent, safe nuclear reactive process, hosted in a passive nest of good old salt, onto our agenda. We need to make up for lost time (and we need not to have to buy our energy from China).