Is Thorium the Key to Green Energy?

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Richard Martin, author of SuperFuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future, contributing editor at Wired and editorial director for Pike Research, looks at thorium as a clean energy source.


Richard Martin

Comments [10]

Mike Conley from los Angeles

Nuclear power isn’t the problem.

The problem is with the reactors the world has been using to make it. If the reactors at Fukushima had been Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTRs) they wouldn’t have a mess on their hands.

Liquid-fuel reactor technology was developed at Oak Ridge National Labs in the 1960s. Although the test reactor worked flawlessly for over 20,000 hours, the project was shelved, a victim of political shenanigans during the Nixon Administration.

A LFTR is a completely different kind of reactor, as different as an electric motor from a gasoline engine. It can’t melt down, and it automatically adjusts its heat generation to meet changing workload demands. It requires no active cooling system and can be installed anywhere on earth, even an underground vault. A tsunami or a tornado would roll right over it, like a truck over a manhole cover.

LFTRs use liquid fuel ⎯- nuclear material dissolved in molten fluoride salt. Solid-fuel reactors are atomic pressure cookers, with the constant danger of high-pressure ruptures, meltdowns, and the forceful ejection of radioactive material into the environment. LFTRs don’t use any water or steam, and they always operate at ambient pressure.

If disaster strikes and a LFTR springs a leak, the spill cools to an inert lump of rock, chemically locking all the nuclear material inside. The fuel can all be recovered and used again. The spill would be measured in square meters, not square kilometers.

LFTRs can deliver 750ºC heat for industrial processes, or spin a high-temperature gas turbine to generate power. They run on Thorium, a mildly radioactive material more common than tin and found all over the world. America has already mined enough Thorium to power the entire country for 400 years. It’s found by the ton in the tailings of our abandoned Rare Earth Element mines.

LFTRs are highly resistant to proliferation. Thorium is bred into 233Uranium inside the reactor, but only enough is made to keep the LFTR running, so no stockpiling occurs. While 233U is an excellent fuel, its harsh radiation makes it nearly impossible to steal, and extremely difficult to use in a weapon.

Liquid fuel can be continuously cleaned of the contaminants that spoil solid fuel. This unique feature enables LFTRs to consume their fuel so thoroughly that they can even use the spent fuel from other reactors, cleaning up our legacy of nuclear waste while producing a minuscule amount of waste themselves.

A 1-gigawatt LFTR, big enough to power a city of one million, will run on one ton of Thorium per year, or about 2 teaspoons per hour. The LFTR’s yearly long-term waste will be the size of a basketball. Compared to the long-term waste of a solid-fuel reactor, a LFTR’s waste would be substantially harmless in just 300 years. Not 300 centuries -- 300 years.

Google: LFTR, liquid fluoride thorium reactor, MSR, molten salt reactor, Thorium energy

See the Wired.Com article “Uranium Is So Last Century"

May. 18 2012 05:35 PM

Phillip Harder in NJ:
The mineral extraction industry has recklessly released dangerous residues at thousands of sites around the US for hundreds of years. Most people have heard of the deadly incidents in the coal fields and the Gulf, but few know about the huge amounts of acid poured into now abandoned Western gold mining operations that were left to leech into the ground water that is threatening farms and water supplies. The number of untreated EPA super fund sites should concern everyone.

Like any industrial material, Thorium must be handled responsibly, but the amazing thing is that there is no near term need in the US to mine it because we already have 3200 tons in a Nevada stockpile that could generate ALL the electricity we now use for eight YEARS! (See -

Globally, however, the world's dependence on China for rare earth elements so critical to our high tech industry and national defense, is raising interest in reactivating our own sources of supply in the US where thorium ores are also found. Adding those thorium materials to our strategic stockpile, and transitioning to a thorium based nuclear industry would ensure a safer, cheaper, cleaner source of nuclear power for hundreds of years. Cheers - Mike Carey.

May. 10 2012 01:12 PM
Philip Harder from Wayne, NJ

I would like to get info, preferrably from the author, about the soil alledgely tainted with thorium, that was excavated a few years ago from a former W.R. Grace plant in Wayne, NJ. It was treated as hazardous material, hauled by truck to Paterson, NJ, transferred to railcars, and supposedly transported to Utah or Nevada for burial. Until I am successful,I will be trying to locate a copy of Mr. Martin's book to see if he covers this incident. Philip Harder

May. 10 2012 12:27 AM
DrAlexC from Menlo Pk., Calif.

Visit the conference in Chicago, 31 May --

May. 09 2012 04:38 PM

SharonP in NY: PSR may do righteous things in field they know something about, but perhaps they should remember that other old adage - "Physician - Heal thyself!" especially since more than 100,000 Americans die unnecessarily EVER YEAR in hospitals under their care, and thousands more die prematurely EVERY YEAR from the toxic effects of fossil fuel pollutants.
These deaths will continue EVERY YEAR until we transition to safer, cleaner, scalable sources of nuclear power such as the molten salt reactors using thorium that were developed at Oak Ridge in the 1960's and are now being revived by India and China. Tragically, the brutal logic of mutually assured destruction in the Cold War demanded uranium and plutonium for atomic weapons, so the billions and billions of dollars invested in uranium technology shoved aside all other nuclear competitors, just like the vested interests in fossil fuels are slowing the emergence of renewable fuels.
Learn more at -
Cheers ...

May. 09 2012 12:44 PM
CD in Wisconsin

CWG: Nixon pulled the plug on thorium fueled reactor technologoy back in the 1970s for purely political reasons. We had invested heavily in uranium fueled reactor technology by that time and the technology meant jobs for his home state of California which he wanted to protect. As time went on, thorium fueled MSR technology was forgotten until a few years ago when the advantages of it were rediscovered. If you read it, Martin proabably talks about it in his book.

SharonP in NY: The Physicians For Social Responsiblilty is NOT -- repeat -- NOT an objective unbiased source of information about nuclear technology. Their purpose in life is to engage in fearmongering and the brutal distortion of facts as tools for demonizing anything they don't like or agree with. You should take anything you hear from them with a large grain of salt.

May. 09 2012 10:04 AM
SharronP from Mahopac, NY

SHAME ON YOU, BRIAN for not doing your homework on the chimera of thorium fuel! Last week on NPR's "Science Friday" (5/4/12), Ira Flatow covered this very topic. Look up the show, and look up the links which provide 3 viewpoints. The first two are the Wired Magazine article and the thorium institute; **the third link is the crucial one** - a 2009 report by the Physicians for Social Responsibility which addresses thorium as a problematic "fuel," why "thorium reactors" are dangerous to build and operate, why "spent" thorium fuel is even more dangerous, and why thorium eases proliferation into weapons-grade nuclear weapons. It's a 3-page chemistry lesson which hasn't gotten a wide enough readership. "If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is." Kudos to your perceptive commenter who had the good sense to ask for reasons why the U.S. hasn't jumped on the thorium bandwagon. Maybe you should have someone who wrote this report on your show to counteract all the hype.

May. 08 2012 06:32 PM

But there's got to be some other explanation why thorium was not developed vs. uranium. We need a better explanation.

May. 08 2012 11:00 AM
gary figallo from Berlin, MD

Molten Salt Reactors can be built in sizes that are perfect for replacing aging inefficient coal fired power plants. It does not require new grids. It is a good technology to use now.

May. 08 2012 10:54 AM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

What about Hulkium? or Spider-Manium?

Sorry...couldn't resist.

May. 08 2012 10:52 AM

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