A groundbreaking account of an energy revolution in the making.
Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future
Author: Richard Martin Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan Pages: 272 Price ( Hardcover ): $27.00 Publication Date: May 8, 2012 ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-0-230-11647-4 Category: Nonfiction
MEDIA CONTACT Siobhan Paganelli Senior Publicist Palgrave Macmillan firstname.lastname@example.org 646 307 5011
“Bringing back to light a long-lost technology that should never have been lost, this fascinating, important biography of thorium also brings us a commodity that’s rare in discussions of energy and climate change: hope.” —CHRIS ANDERSON Editor in Chief, Wired Author, The Long Tail and Free
“Richard Martin tells a story that needs to be understood, for our future energy supplies rely upon hard choices. Martin makes at least one of those difficult decisions ever so much easier by educating us on our troubled history and experience with nuclear energy, and even more importantly for the future development of this essential source of 21st Century clean energy. This is the type of book that can make a difference!" —JOHN HOFMEISTER Former President, Shell Oil Company Author, Why We Hate the Oil Companies Founder/CEO, Citizens for Affordable Energy
"Richard Martin has done an exemplary job of exploring a technically demanding subject in a gripping narrative form. The implications of this subject could not be more vital—for oil prices, energy security, the chances of coping with climate change—and SuperFuel clearly and fairly spells out the reasons for both optimism and for caution. If every technical book were written in this clear and engaging a style, we'd all be a lot better informed! I am very glad to have read this book." —JAMES FALLOWS The Atlantic Author, China Airborne
“Thorium is the younger sister to uranium, less volatile, slower to self-consume, and as many have contended without success, much better suited as a source of nuclear power than uranium. SuperFuel by award-winning science writer Richard Martin tells the Cinderella story of thorium in a fast-paced, insider's account. This short, well-written book is a must read for those interested in understanding thorium's past and its potential to be a clean, renewable energy source for the future.” —CYNTHIA KELLY President, Atomic Heritage Foundation
ne day in June empty save for grass and gravel and a few ar-
2009, I hiked along
borvitae trees. Nothing stirred.
the Clinch River in
“Eight billion dollars,” said Sorensen.
“That’s what you’re looking at.”
to what was once
supposed to be the
doned site of the Clinch River Breeder Reac-
site of the most ad-
tor. Planned in the 1960s, Clinch River was
vanced nuclear power plant in the world.
originally conceived as the prototype of a new
With my companions—John Kutsch, the own-
class of futuristic nuclear reactors that would
What we were looking at was the aban-
er of an engineering design firm in Chicago; create more fuel than they consumed. The Bruce Patton, a scientist at Oak Ridge Nation-
project officially began in 1970 and finally was
al Laboratory, 30 miles or so up the road; and abandoned in 1983, after innumerable studKirk Sorensen, an engineer at the Marshall
ies, reports, and rhetoric, plus the eight bil-
Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama—I
lion Sorensen mentioned. Once advertised as
clambered over a dilapidated chain-link fence
the future of power generation in the United
and walked down the dirt road that followed
States, Clinch River is now synonymous with
the meandering river. It was the first really technological hubris and the failed promise of steamy day of summer. The woods were loud
atomic power. We were standing in the grave-
with crickets and desultory birdsong, and a
yard of the U.S. nuclear power industry.
double-crested cormorant launched itself off
the surface of the sluggish river. We were tres-
Sorensen—who at that time was studying for
passing on federal property, but it seemed un-
an master’s in nuclear engineering at the Uni-
likely that anyone would care. We passed the
versity of Tennessee—talked about the folly of
As we ambled back toward our cars,
foundation of an old guard shack covered in U.S. nuclear policy and about the little-known foliage. It was like the setting for a postapoca-
element that could transform it.
lyptic movie, except we weren’t being pursued
said. “It’s a safer, more abundant fuel that
After a mile or so we came to a wide
could’ve revolutionized nuclear power. The
clearing on the inner curve of a horseshoe
problem is, it has almost nothing in common
bend in the river. Obviously manmade, it was
with what we’re doing now.”
“Thorium was the alternate path,” he
About this Book According to the International Energy Agency, worldwide demand for energy will rise by nearly 40 percent by 2035—a figure that many analysts, citing booming economic growth in the nations of China, India, and Brazil, consider low. Meeting that demand with current energy technologies will result in the addition of many billions of tons of carbon into Earth’s atmosphere. Yet to build enough wind, solar, and other renewable energy projects to significantly reduce coal and oil use would require time and resources we simply do not have. There is a solution—a form of nuclear power produced with thorium, a naturally-occurring element that is so safe you can hold it in your bare hand, that’s four times more abundant than uranium, and that’s so dense and highly efficient, a ball bearingsized amount could provide all the power an average person will consume in their lifetime. Furthermore, innovative liquid-fueled thorium reactors are 200 to 300 times more fuel-efficient than standard reactors and so small and portable they can be mass-produced in factories. Thorium reactors will also solve the problems of nuclear waste and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction: you can't make a bomb with thorium, and liquid-fueled thorium reactors can actually burn waste from existing, conventional reactors.
So why aren’t we using it now? That is the puzzle that led one of America’s leading energy writers, Richard Martin, to conduct a threeyear investigation into the secret history of one of the greatest technological missteps of the 20th century:
the decision in the early 1970s to abandon R&D on thorium power, despite ample proof of its low cost, safety, and efficacy. Based on groundbreaking archival research and hundreds of hours of exclusive interviews, Martin’s game-changing new book—SuperFuel: Thorium, The Green Energy Source for the Future—provides a gripping untold story of the science, the personalities, and the political, military and economic forces that shaped American nuclear power policy and ultimately led to the energy crisis we face today. The most important science and technology book of the year, SuperFuel also brings us word of the global thorium revival movement in progress, powered by a new generation of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who have put their careers and their reputations on the line to battle the nuclear power establishment and bring thorium back on line.
POST SCRIPT Several countries, including waking giants India and China, have announced or confirmed plans to build thorium power reactors. The U.S. is not among them. In the last year China has made clear its intention to become a major supplier of nuclear technology on the world market, focusing in part on liquid-fuel reactors using thorium. Those reactors are inherently safe, meaning that a meltdown or other out-of-control accident is physically impossible. Meanwhile, the United States, which pioneered the development of thorium reactors a half-century ago, continues to pursue the failed nuclear power strategies of the 1970s.
Award-winning journalist Richard Martin has
London to profile Shell’s futurists, the Scenario
been covering the energy landscape for nearly two Group, for Business 2.0. In Canada’s far north, decades. A contributing editor for Wired since
Martin descended 600 feet underground for a rare
2002, he has written about energy, technology,
close-up of the world’s richest uranium mine, and
and international affairs for Time, Fortune, The he travelled across Alaska’s forbidding North Slope Atlantic, and the Asian Wall Street Journal, and to report on new horizontal drilling techniques many other publications. The editorial director
for extracting oil from under the permafrost near
for Pike Research, the leading cleantech research
the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In December
and analysis firm, he blogs regularly on the future
2009, he broke the news of the thorium revival in
of energy for Forbes.com. He is the former Tech-
a groundbreaking article for Wired.
nology Producer for ABCNews.com, Technology
Among other honors, Martin is the recipi-
Editor for The Industry Standard (2000-2001), ent of the “Excellence in Feature Writing” Award and Editor-at-Large for Information Week (2005- from the Society for Professional Journalists and 2008).
the White Award for Investigative Reporting. His
Martin’s writing on the future of energy
article, “The God Particle & the Grid,” published
has taken him around the world. In 1997 he spent
by Wired, was selected for Best Science Writing
three months in Aerbaijan and Kazakhstan, as one of 2004. Educated at Yale and the University of of the first western journalists to report on the last
Hong Kong, he lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his
great oil rush of the 20th century, the Caspian Sea
wife and son.
oil boom. Shortly after 9/11/2001, he traveled to
What Is Thorium? Thorium is a lustrous sil-
Left alone, a chunk of thorium is no more harmful
very-white metal, denser
than a bar of soap. In fact, for a period before World
than lead, that occurs
War II, a thorium-laced toothpaste was marketed
in great abundance in
in Germany under the brand name “Doramad.”
Earth’s crust. Its atomic
and its rare ability to breed through neutron cap-
of protons in an atom’s
ture, thorium is a more energy-dense and efficient
nucleus—is 90. On the periodic table
source of energy than uranium or plutonium: As
it’s found on the bottom row, along with the other
a nuclear fuel, thorium reserves carry enough en-
heavy radioactive elements, or actinides—protac-
ergy to power humanity’s machines for many mil-
tinium, uranium, neptunium, plutonium, and so
lennia into the future.
on. With an atomic weight of 232, it is the second-
heaviest element found in measurable amounts
is also less hazardous to future generations. Fluid-
in nature, behind uranium.
fueled reactors known as liquid fluoride thorium
Thorium is around four times as abun-
reactors (LFTRs, pronounced lifters) can act as
dant as uranium and about as common as lead.
breeders, producing as much fuel as they con-
Used properly, thorium is far safer and cleaner as
sume. In LFTRs, thorium offers what nuclear reac-
a nuclear fuel than uranium. Thorium’s half-life,
tor designers call higher burnup—there’s less of it
the time it takes for half of the atoms in any sam-
in terms of volume and less long-lived radioactive
ple to disintegrate, is roughly 14.05 billion years,
wastes to deal with afterward than uranium. They
slightly more than the age of the universe; the
can even consume highly enriched fissile material
half-life of uranium is 4.07 billion years. The lon-
from dismantled warheads and toxic elements in
ger the half-life, the lower the radioactivity and
spent fuel from other reactors, turning it into a
the lower the danger of exposure from radiation.
relatively benign and shorter-lived form of spent
Thorium’s rate of decay is so slow that it can al-
fuel, thus eliminating the need for geologic stor-
most be considered stable; it’s not fissile (able to
age for thousands of years. What’s more, LFTRs
sustain a nuclear chain reaction on its own), but
are inherently safe: The fission reactions occur in a
it is fertile, meaning that it can be converted into
radioactive cocktail of molten salt containing ura-
a fissile isotope of uranium, U-233, through neu-
nium-233 and jacketed by a blanket of thorium for
tron capture, also known as “breeding.” You can’t
breeding; when the fuel heats up it expands, slow-
mash together two lumps of thorium, even highly
ing the rate of fission reactions and cooling itself.
purified thorium, and trigger a nuclear explosion.
A meltdown is physically impossible.
Because of its unusually long decay process
Nuclear waste from the thorium fuel cycle
Timeline Selected facts from the book for reference only. For full details, please refer to the book. 1828
Thorium is discovered by Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius—40 years after uranium and 66 years before radiation.
Gas lighting, which became widespread in the first two decades of the 19th century, illuminates many of the streets in Paris. Thorium is used in mantles for gas streetlights.
Henri Becquerel accidentally discovers radiation.
German chemist Gerhard Carl Schmidt discovers that thorium is radioactive.
In a series of famous experiments on a variety of substances including uranium and thorium, Marie Curie establishes the basic properties of radioactivity.
Noticing that thorium seems to emit a gaseous substance distinct from the thorium itself, Ernest Rutherford and his colleague Frederic Soddy discover the principle of atomic decay.
Frederic Soddy publishes a paper claiming various medical benefits for “radio-thorium,” which he describes as a rival and replacement for radium.
Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard realizes the possibility of the nuclear chain reaction.
In a paper entitled “Resonance in uranium and thorium disintegrations and the phenomenon of nuclear fission,” Niels Bohr lays out the properties of explosive nuclear fission in enriched uranium.
Glenn Seaborg, the discoverer of plutonium, isolates uranium-233, a decay product of thorium, calling it “a $50 quadrillion discovery.” FDR authorizes the Manhattan Engineering District, later called the Manhattan Project, for the purpose of creating an atomic bomb.
The production of plutonium and enriched uranium for the bomb’s core are assigned to the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago. The Pentagon creates the Clinton Laboratory, later Oak Ridge National Laboratory, outside Knoxville, Tennessee, to serve as one of three primary research-and-development centers for the Manhattan Project. The first research director is physicist Eugene Wigner, winner of the 1963 Nobel Prize for physics, who brings with him Alvin Weinberg and a cadre of the best nuclear scientists from the Metallurgical Lab.
Wigner conceives the “aqueous homogenous” reactor, which could bombard a blanket of thorium-232 to create fissile U233 in its core.
As Allied troops advance on Berlin, American agents in France learn that the Germans have raided the world’s largest stockpile of thorium from a French firm when they occupied Paris, and shipped hundreds of tons of thorium east into the Reich.
On August 6, the first atomic bomb, known as Little Boy, a gun-type fission weapon made with uranium-235, is dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later, an implosion-type nuclear weapon known as Fat Boy, using plutonium-239, is dropped on Nagasaki. The “New Piles Committee,” an offshoot of the Manhattan Project, is formed to develop new reactor technology including thorium-fueled systems.
Along with Wigner, Weinberg works out the basic design of the light water reactor, which becomes the de facto standard for the world’s nuclear plants. The Atomic Energy Commission is formed, with former Tennessee Valley Authority president David Lilienthal as its first chair. Weinberg campaigns unsuccessfully to institute civilian control over the new AEC. President Truman signs the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which “does not in any respect diminish the dominance of the military in nuclear affairs,” Weinberg writes at the time.
Named associate director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Alvin Weinberg sets out to build a thoriumbased, liquid-fuel reactor.
The United States launches the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. The Nautilus’ reactor is based on the light-water designs of Wigner and Weinberg. The Aircraft Reactor Experiment, a precursor to the molten salt reactor, operates successfully at Oak Ridge.
Alvin Weinberg becomes director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Responding to reports of a Soviet power-generating reactor, AEC chairman Lewis Strauss calls for the development of a commercial breeder. That project, on the shore of Lake Erie, will become the ill-fated Fermi 1 liquid metal breeder reactor, and misguided efforts to build uranium-fueled breeder reactors will ultimately doom Weinberg’s thorium-based MSR.
The Molten Salt Reactor Experiment is funded at $2 million a year. With an annual budget of $60 million and staff of 4300, Oak Ridge National Laboratory becomes the largest nuclear energy laboratory in the U.S. and among the half-dozen largest technical institutions in the world.
Weinberg publishes an essay entitled “Power Breeding as a National Objective,’ in which he argues that “current economics alone should not be the sole basis for choosing which reactor system to pursue. … Efficient use of the raw materials of nuclear energy—uranium
and thorium—is equally important.” Also that year, Fluid Fuel Reactors, summarizing the work at Oak Ridge on advanced reactors with fluid cores, is published by the Atomic Energy Commission. during the Atoms for Peace era under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
A report from the Atomic Energy Commission examines three competing next-generation reactor designs and concludes that “The Molten Salt Reactor has the highest probability of achieving technical feasibility."
Homi Bhabha, the father of atomic power in India, develops and begins to promote his “three-stage program” to develop homegrown thorium reactors in India.
The Molten Salt Reactor at Oak Ridge goes critical and runs successfully, with minimal downtime, through the remainder of the decade.
Bhabha is killed in a plane crash in Switzerland.
The MSR becomes the first reactor to run on uranium-233, derived from thorium.
In December, the MSR is shut down to make way for what Weinberg believed would be more advanced molten salt designs and a full-fledged demonstration plant.
In his first-ever special presidential message to Congress on energy, President Nixon declares that “Our best hope today for meeting the nation’s growing demand for economical clean energy lies with the fast breeder reactor.” Nixon requests $27 million for the liquid metal fast breeder reactor effort. Despite the success of the MSR experiment, AEC reactor technology chief Milton Shaw issues a series of critical assessments of the technology.
The Molten Salt Reactor program is canceled. The U.S. nuclear industry signs contracts for 41 new nuke plants—all uranium-powered light-water reactors—the
industry’s high-water mark. Alvin Weinberg, a leading voice for nuclear safety and the father of the molten salt reactor, is dismissed as director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The Molten Salt Reactor program is briefly reinstated.
The Molten Salt Reactor program is terminated permanently.
The Shippingport Reactor, in Pennsylvania, becomes the first commercial reactor to use thorium.
Thorium Power goes public.
Weinberg dies at 91. Kirk Sorensen starts the blog, Energy from Thorium, as a “location for discussion and education about the value of thorium as a future energy source.”
India, which has publicly announced its intention to pursue Homi Bhabha’s three-stage program for thorium reactors, signs a new nuclear treaty with the United States.
The Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown on March 28, 1979, becomes the worst accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power and leads to the end of commercial nuclear power development in the U.S.
The non-profit Thorium Energy Alliance is formed to spur the development of thorium-based nuclear power. The Thorium Energy Independence Act is introduced in Congress. The bill fails multiple times to make it out of committee.
Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear submarine, is forced to retire. Two years later former President Jimmy Carter recalls that Rickover had told him, “I wish that nuclear power had never been discovered.”
The Obama Administration forms the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.
The Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine is the worst nuclear accident in history, and is one of only two classified as a level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale (the other being the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011).
An earthquake and tsunami strike Japan, setting off the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. In the wake of the Fukushima accident, several nations including Germany decide to forego nuclear power altogether. China announces its intention to build a liquid-fuel thorium reactor, becoming the first country to officially do so. Kirk Sorensen leaves Teledyne Brown to found Flibe Energy, a company created to build liquid-fuel thorium reactors. Thorium power R&D programs are underway in Brazil, Russia, Japan, the Czech Republic, France, Norway and other countries. The Baroness Bryony Worthington, the youngest member of the House of Lords, founds the Weinberg Foundation in London to promote the development of thorium power.
Pursued in lieu of liquid-fuel thorium reactors, the Clinch River Breeder Reactor is canceled after nearly 20 years of research and development costing $8 billion.
Alvin Radkowsky founds Thorium Power Ltd. to develop solid-fuel thorium technology.
Kirk Sorensen stumbles on a copy of the book, Fluid Fuel Reactors, published by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1958.
Two dozen members of the U.K. Parliament from all major parties form a committee to study the potential of thorium reactors.
According to the International Energy Agency, worldwide demand for energy is expected to rise by nearly 40 percent—a figure that many analysts consider low.
The untold story of the science, the personalities, and the political, military and economic forces that shaped American nuclear power polic...
Published on Apr 9, 2012
The untold story of the science, the personalities, and the political, military and economic forces that shaped American nuclear power polic...