As I’ve written before, you don’t need to be a climate change convert to believe that nuclear power represents a very attractive alternative to nonrenewable fossil fuels.
In this lengthy piece in Cosmos magazine, Tim Dean examines the possibility of nuclear reactors based on thorium rather than uranium. Regardless of your position on climate change, and Dean certainly makes it a key point in his article, the essential reality is that “fossil fuels won’t last forever. Current predictions are that we may reach the point of peak production for oil and natural gas within the next decade – after which production levels will continually decline worldwide.”
Even if these predictions are much too cynical with respect to the fossil fuels left, the bottom line is that these are finite, nonrenewable resources. Dean talks about the conditions needed for an alternative energy source besides coal, which is the source of vast amounts of the world’s power: “It should offer abundant power. It also needs to be clean, safe and renewable as well as consistent. And ultimately, it needs to be economical.”
Again, as I’ve said before, “If the purpose of petroleum fuels is to pave the way for their own obsolescence, it’s becoming clearer day by day that this means the embrace of nuclear power.” You don’t have to agree with all of Dean’s analysis, I don’t think, to be intrigued by the possibility of thorium reactors.
Among the advantages of thorium as opposed to uranium: “Thorium is not fissile, so no matter how much thorium you pack together, it will not start splitting atoms and blow up. This is because it cannot undergo nuclear fission by itself and it cannot sustain a nuclear chain reaction once one starts. It’s a wannabe atom splitter incapable of taking the grand title.”
There are some complications, mostly drawing from the fact that thorium cannot self-sustain. As Dean writes, “The main stumbling block until now has been how to provide thorium fuel with enough neutrons to keep the reaction going, and do so in an efficient and economical way.” Dean goes on to describe two recent innovations that have the potential of addressing this stumbling block.
“Can atomic power be green?” asks Dean. Another way of asking the question is whether folks like Greenpeace will embrace nuclear power if the primary fuel is thorium rather than uranium.
Update: Deroy Murdock passes along wonderment regarding the question “why environmentalists reject alternatives to fossil fuels if they agree with Sir David King, British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s science adviser, that global warming is ‘the greatest threat facing mankind’ and is ‘worse than terrorism.’”