The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
A Revolution in Nuclear Power?

Jiang Mianheng, the son of a former Chinese leader, has just dumped $350 million into an ongoing project by China’s National Academy of Sciences to develop a new kind of nuclear reactor with a new type of fuel. The project has been underway for almost two years now, but this new cash infusion is sure to accelerate timelines and excite proponents of what has been called the “clean” nuclear power: thorium. The Telegraph has the story:

The aim is to break free of the archaic pressurized-water reactors fueled by uranium—originally designed for US submarines in the 1950s—opting instead for new generation of thorium reactors that produce far less toxic waste and cannot blow their top like Fukushima.

[The reactor] design could not cause a meltdown because it never reaches a high enough temperature to melt the nickel-alloy vessel. If there is an emergency, a plug melts and the salts drain into a pan. “The reactor saves itself,” [former NASA engineer Kirk Sorenson] said.

[I]t leaves far less toxic residue. Most of the mineral is used up in the fission process, while uranium reactors use up just 0.7%. It can even burn up existing stockpiles of plutonium and hazardous waste.

[I]t could do for nuclear power what shale fracking has done for natural gas—but on a bigger scale, for much longer, perhaps more cheaply, and with near zero CO2 emissions.

On paper, this sounds appealing. Thorium’s fuel cycle makes it extremely difficult to produce military-grade radioactive isotopes from the fission reaction, which will help limit proliferation of nuclear weapons. If this technology takes off, it will become considerably more difficult for countries like Iran to hide a nuclear weapons program behind legitimate plans to develop nuclear power.

And there are other benefits as well: Like all nuclear power, Thorium reactors would have a minimal impact on carbon emissions. Even better, it appears to allay the traditional nuclear fears of meltdowns and stockpiles of nuclear waste, as most waste is burned off in the fission process itself. And, most importantly, it has an abundant fuel supply:

[Jiang Mianheng] estimates that China has enough thorium to power its electricity needs for “20,000 years”. So does the world. The radioactive mineral is scattered across Britain. The Americans have buried tonnes of it, a hazardous by-product of rare earth metal mining.

We have no clue whether this will pan out or not, but we’re pleased someone is trying. Thorium reactors may or may not play a major role in the energy of the future, but the possibility should remind us that while we can never predict the arc of any particular technology, technological progress remains a key driver of events around the world. It may not be thorium, it may not be solar or wind that is the next big thing in energy, but we can be very sure that something will come along to change the energy picture and increase the supplies.

One of the problems with the conventional green policy approach to issues like climate change is that greens project a steady technological state out into the future with at most incremental changes taken into account.  Whether it comes to their forecasts of carbon output or whether it involves their inventory of the means of dealing with it, greens almost always assume that the future will look pretty much like a straight line projection of current trends. It’s a big mistake and contributes heavily to the serial record of false Malthusian predictions and projections environmentalists have been making since the Carter administration.

Accelerating change is the only constant in our times. Change is inherently unpredictable, often radical, and usually disruptive. That frustrates policymakers and economic and social planners, but it is a reality that we ignore at our peril.

Interested readers can find out more about thorium in this five minute video on Youtube.

Published on January 9, 2013 12:00 pm