I generally have a “meh” attitude towards nuclear power. I’m not one of those folks who thinks that anything with the word “nuclear” in it must automatically be Evil. But as a practical matter, nuclear plants have proven so capital-intensive and so dependent on government subsidy that their value as carbon-free power investments has been drastically oversold. Nuclear-plant operators in the United States don’t have to pay the full cost of their own liability insurance. We still don’t have a permanent location for storing high-level nuclear waste, and from what I can tell, if we ever do choose such a location, taxpayers who don’t benefit directly from nuclear-generated electricity will still have to pitch in to cover the cost of disposal. If nuclear operators had to raise capital, buy liability insurance, and dispose of their waste on the open market, nobody would dare to run a nuclear power plant; if other forms of non-fossil-fuel energy enjoyed the same level of subsidy, we’d have solar panels on every roof by now (even in towns where it rains for 364 days out of the year).
All of which is prelude to my fascination with this news: some researchers and operators are developing nuclear power plants that use thorium, rather than uranium, as their fuel. Thorium-232 is far more plentiful than uranium-235, the waste products don’t need to be stored for as long as the waste from a uranium-fueled reactor, and those waste products aren’t nearly as convenient for someone looking to construct a nuclear warhead.
In fact, there was a lot of research into thorium-based reactors in the 1950s and 1960s. (You may recall Heinlein mentioning the element in several of his works.) So why haven’t we been using thorium-fueled reactors all along? Because back in the day, the government wanted nuclear power plants to produce convenient warhead material as a side effect. With the Cold War over and antiproliferation on everyone’s agenda, new priorities and new research might lead to new models for nuclear power—maybe even models that can compete fairly with renewable sources.
via Hacker News