Solving Cities

Documentary: How we missed out on a "limitless" supply of an exotic nuclear power

Posting in Cities

Fifty years ago, a forgotten government experiment seemed to prove that another kind of nuclear energy could nearly eliminate the risks of meltdowns, wastes and weapons.

"Fifty years ago, a forgotten government experiment seemed to prove that another kind of nuclear energy could nearly eliminate the risks of meltdowns, wastes and weapons."

That, in a nutshell, is the promise of a nuclear reactor powered by thorium, an element as common as lead. India, China and a handful of small companies in the U.S. are all pursuing this new/old type of nuclear power. Above is Motherboard.tv's half-hour documentary on the subject, which includes such energy luminaries as Dave Biello, Scientific American's energy correspondent, and Alexis Madrigal, technology editor at The Atlantic.

A thorium reactor has a fluid rather than solid fuel. Its working element can be found in sands in India and Norway. It's only slightly radioactive -- the granite in your countertops has small amounts of it.

So why are there no nuclear power plants using it today? One answer could be that unlike conventional nuclear reactors, it couldn't be used to create bombs. That was a great asset at the dawn of the nuclear era, but now it's a huge liability: nuclear proliferation, waste that no one wants that will last for tens of thousands of years, and oh yeah, Fukushima.

Small thorium reactors could uniquely enable the kind of new urbanism efficiency advocates say we'll need to rapidly de-carbonize our civilization. They could be distributed throughout cities, and because there's no danger they'll melt down, they could be plunked right in the middle of neighborhoods. That would eliminate the need to build new transmission infrastructure -- one of the hidden costs of the renewable-powered smart grid.

The question that remains is, who will get to thorium first -- the U.S., or some other nation?

More on thorium from SmartPlanet:

Share this

Christopher Mims

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Christopher Mims has written for Scientific American, WIRED, Popular Science, Fast Company, Good, Discover, Slate, Technology Review, Nature and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. Formerly, he was an editor at Scientific American, Grist and Seed. He is based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure