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18 May 2011

So, Why Not Thorium?

Over on the Druid's Blog is the UK Government's Chief Nuclear Inspector's Interim Report in to the Fukushima incident.   Now whilst I admit I am not a nuclear physicist,  it seems to me the report avoids the issue somewhat.  Yes I agree that we are unlikely to have an earthquake and/or tsunami here on Anglesey,  but I do have to say that that does not avoid the unpleasant truth that the Japanese reactors failed because the cooling system failed - the earthquake etc did relatively little damage,  and that it doesn't take a geological incident of any magnitude at all to make the cooling system pack-in -  other things do it just as well - ask 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl.

The problem - ably demonstrated by the propaganda war dropping through your letter box every month or so from Horizon,  is persuading people that the solution is traditional nuclear power.  The carrot of much needed jobs is held out along with the stick of 'brown-outs' if something isn't done.

So,  is nuclear power the answer?  

Yes.  Definitely.   It is all we need for all our requirements now and for evermore. We don't need wind farms, tidal power, bio-digesters or anything else.   They are merely an expensive diversion and indulgence - a folly.   The answer is Thorium.   

Thorium: Available at a shop near you
Thorium is abundant and found all over the planet in it's natural state as Thorium 232. There is four times as much of it than Uranium but where it's abundance really comes to the fore is that nearly all of it can be converted to fuel whereas only a maximum 0.7% of Uranium can, meaning that really there is at least 140 times more.  Given that there is 40 years worth of fuel-grade Uranium,  this means that there is over 550 years worth of  usable Thorium.     Research into Thorium Reactors has been going on for years and in India they hope to have one commercially  on-line within two decades.   In addition the USA, Russia, China, Israel and several other nations are experimenting with and in some instances building Thorium reactors - or indeed have already built working proto-types. Even Canada and France are researching and experimenting with it and  Japan was working on it prior to the 'quake.  The plentiful supply of fuel (it is even present here in the UK) means that no country need worry about securing it's energy supplies.  It is far cleaner than any other workable form of nuclear energy or carbon-based energy.  The waste is safe and because of the temperatures and pressures involved the reactors are far safer and best of all,  you can use Thorium reactors to burn and destroy high level nuclear waste.  As an example there are 2000 tonnes of highly poisonous plutonium knocking round the planet in various stockpiles.  To kick-start a Thorium reactor you need a couple of ounces and the Thorium reactor destroys it. Permanently.  You can even put more in if you want and if it subsequently runs out it's no big deal - you can use a Thorium reactor to start another in a cluster of reactors.

It is the ideal solution until we master the black art of 'star power' - nuclear fusion.    So what's the problem?  Well there are plenty of papers - thousands in fact and it seems the main problem is research and investment.  The evolution of nuclear power meant electricity generation was initially basically regarded as a spin-off - the main requirement was for military programmes and as such all research followed that path and so reactor evolution went that way as well.   And unfortunately Thorium cannot be made to reduce a city to rubble and so is widely regarded as useless by the powers that be.  Basically it cannot go bang and it can't mutate your kids so in their eyes it's a waste of time. 

Armageddon: Not with Thorium you won't

So in my opinion we need to consider before it's to late whether traditional-fuelled reactors are what we want or should we be throwing our lot in with India etc and developing a far more green power source - Thorium, and if it means a couple of years or so of intermittent power supplies then that will give us time to dwell on how stupid we have been.   Otherwise in 20 or 30 years time the likes of India and China will be laughing their socks of at us for using prehistoric, old-fashioned 'third world', dirty and expensive nuclear technology to light our hovels.

Some other stuff to read
Obama Could Kill Fossil Fuel Tomorrow
China Announces Thorium Programme
Brookhaven Laboratory


Anonymous said...

"and that it doesn't take a geological incident of any magnitude at all to make the cooling system pack-in - other things do it just as well - ask 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl."

unfair to include chernobyl as the disaster was entirely man-made and forced insomuch that that the controllers in chernobyl purposefully overrode multiple safely-locks as part of an experiment to see how far they could push the reactor. they pushed too far, unnecessarily.

Prometheuswrites said...

I believe part of the problems at Fuckishima were falsified records of safety checks. Human error is caused by more than people forgeting to do something or not doing their jobs properly, especially in a privatised industry where secrecy about operational problems is the norm.

We also do have a mid term fuel supply. When the coal mines were closed dowm in the 80's there was still 400-500 years of high grade coal remaining. We do have the technology to build reduced polution power stations; but it would mean a sizable workforce of miners which would probably organise itself witin a union structure; something this government may not want.

The Red Flag said...

anon with regards to Chernobyl it isn't unfair to incluse it at all - it proves my point. It doesn't take an earthquake to knacker a cooling system, in Chernobyl's case it just took curiosity.

Robert said...

Well I worked at two nuclear plants in the UK, and on a number of occasions we ran out like bats out of hell, only to be told it was training or it was an incident, a lot we do not know about our own plants and the people who test and run them.

I suspect the reason we do not use other fuels for Nuclear to many people would lose to much money out of the old regime.

Prometheuswrites said...

Robert: Agreed. "Whatever they are talking about they are talking about money" - whether its investments or inflated self-determined salaries.

This may change when food starts to 'run out'. Not 'run short' - as it will still be able to be commodified at that point - however food isn't like other tradeable commodities in that it gets consumed at a high rate, (Gold OTOH sits around in one form or another for a very long time) - but I can live without gold.

At some point in the scarcity/consumption cycle food becomes non-tradeable, ("Sorry I'm not selling, as I prefer 'no money' to starvation and death").

At such a point wealth will become immaterial, (even private armies need to eat and you can't eat Bullion, Fine Art or an Off-Shore Hedge-fund.

However it's not all doom and gloom, as we have at our fingertips (literally) intra-personal and social communication technology unparalleled in history and hopefully, (as long as the 'fear your fellow man' brigade don't retain the ascendancy), the ingenuity to create new forms of ownership, production and social order.

That quote of Churchill's about "Democracy being the worst form of government except all the others we have tried" has a lot to answer for - as it writes-off all those forms of socio-economic organisation that we haven't tried; with a slight of mouth trick that validates what we call 'Democracy' despite it being so 'bad'.

Anonymous said...

Maybe a few companies (energy companies perhaps) should start paying people in tokens representing kilowatt-hours, rather than something meaningless we agree to call pounds (or euros or dollars).

Then maybe "the markets" could start trading kilowatt-hour futures.

Payment in kilowatt-hours might be marginally more sensible than exchanging pieces of paper on which is written "I promise to pay the bearer on demand", pieces of paper whose real value two years from today is kind of hard to work out. But we can be quite confident that energy will be costing us *more* pounds per kilowatt-hour two years from today...

Nooka said...

Anon Haven't we started doing this already - it's called carbon trading?

Anonymous said...

Well it's not a million miles off carbon trading is it, except carbon trading has no visible benefit for the ordinary working/retired public, the main beneficiaries are traders and financial institutions. That wasn't the theory but it's the reality.

Whereas if folk could be paid in kWh this year and maybe put some of it in a savings account for withdrawal in five years time I think that might be quite handy for folk, no? It might even help encourage individuals and organisations to take practical measures ASAP to use less energy, something sadly lacking right now.