11A081 Thorium by Jim Davies, 3/23/2011    

Had I kept up properly with my physics over the last half century, I would have known this already and for sure would have told you; but I didn't, so I'm sorry. My only consolation is that hardly anyone else told you, either: but the news is that thorium can with several advantages be used as a nuclear fuel. Here's a handy child's guide to thorium fission.

Not, mind, that I'm going soft on uranium power plants. As shown in Nukes Revisited, even in the unique circumstances of Fukushima they are not the hazard to civilization that some ignorantly suppose; some dangerous remedies had to be applied and several brave men took heavy risks and may suffer cancer and foreshortened lives as a result, but at this writing the great Japanese tragedy of 2011 has claimed about 15,000 victims of whom not a single one resulted from nuclear radiation. There was a near-miss, in the sense that the meltdown might have been much worse, but (again, as shown there) the danger came not from technology but from government interference and ineptitude. Yesterday's excellent news is that cooling pump power is restored and so radiation levels should from now on steeply decrease.

That government ineptitude may be even worse than I supposed last week. "Fail-unsafe" by Edwin Smith in the Libertarian Enterprise reveals that when the earthquake struck Japan, by government edict all power was immediately shut off. For most circumstances that may be sensible; but abruptly to pull the plug on a nuclear power plant meant that the reactor suddenly overheated, at the very moment when freshly pumped cooling water became unavailable. If Smith is right, it means that the emergency that kept us all holding our breath for a week was directly caused by incompetent government intrusion.

So, regular uranium-based nukes are quite safe enough if government doesn't interfere, either to "help" or hinder their design and operation - but the thorium alternative way to generate electricity is even safer yet. I'm much obliged to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Telegraph for his explanation last weekend. Quote: "US physicists in the late 1940s explored thorium fuel for power. It has a higher neutron yield than uranium, a better fission rating, longer fuel cycles, and does not require the extra cost of isotope separation. The plans were shelved because thorium does not produce plutonium for bombs."

Thorium is as abundant as lead, and produces far less radioactive waste than uranium. But development was shunted aside by the FedGov because it could not be used to exterminate its enemies. Sonofagun. All the impassioned anti-nuclear agitation of the last half century, all the delay and all of the admittedly overstated danger, and all the massive dependence on oil with its potential for conflict in the Middle East, could have been avoided if only the FedGov had not been fixated on weapons of mass destruction. I knew that government had screwed up nukes - two ZGBlogs this month prove it - but I did not know the enormous, wicked extent of the deception. I should have known; mea culpa. By weight, thorium can produce 200 times as much energy as uranium, reactors are cheaper to design and waste, much cheaper to store - even if it is stored; for in thorium reactors, the waste can be regenerated for use as fuel. It is also inherently safer, since its fission reaction has to be primed; absent an external neutron stream, it shuts down automatically.

India is switching to thorium, and as Evans-Pritchard remarked, China is committed to extensive use of this technology. In a zero government society multiple fuels and technologies will of course compete, with no single bureaucracy, influenced by lobbies from one of them (oil?) or another (coal?) enforcing a uniform policy that pleases only traffickers in political power. I predict thorium will compete strongly.

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