Motherboard TV: The Thorium Dream (Documentary)


let’s travel into the future what will we see I could sit there all day you could sit there for a month and postulate it at what the effects of the world switching over to thorium energy would have been its almost unfathomable I think it’s always been the right time for thorium I think it’s been the right time ever since the research was cancelled in 1974 the United States would have probably achieved energy independence around 2000 our fossil fuel usage would be diminishing every year you wouldn’t have nuclear waste issues like we’re facing today Fukushima wouldn’t have happened Three Mile Island would have happened we would be producing continually less and less carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere per year oil consumption would be on the decline environmental quality would be on the rise we would be in a very different situation and it could have happened the great tragedy is it could have happened you know a third of a century ago that’s the part that I find almost so tormenting is that was a very realistic future that could have taken place we don’t wait any longer for that future in the 1950s the scientists who created the atomic bomb offered a promise by splitting the atom we could have a limitless supply of electricity that could end pollution and bring peace to the world forever but after the disaster in Japan that dream has never looked more like a nightmare I think it’s I think it’s going to be a tough road for nuclear power given the events in Fukushima let’s face it this is the first time we’ve ever seen a nuclear power plant literally explode today as the world grows increasingly desperate for clean energy a new breed of engineers and energy geeks says we need nuclear power now more than ever 50 years ago a forgotten government experiment seemed to prove another kind of nuclear energy could nearly eliminate the risks of meltdowns waste and weapons another news and obscure metal that could energize our world it’s called thorium its eco-friendly and there’s lots of it the amount of thorium that it would take to provide all the power to run your entire life is about the size of a marble that big the Chinese are investing millions in research into reactors powered by the element thorium a metal proponents say as common as lead you know it’s like dude what have you been smoking you know no one thing can do all that you know it came it can’t make energy and be clean and help with space travel you do feel a little bit like you know an evangelist when you’re talking about this stuff did the United States abandon a brilliant idea in order to build bombs if thorium is so great why aren’t we using it today and amidst all the fear and stagnation who are the people who believe once again that nuclear can save the world the key is something that has been almost uniformly overlooked by policymakers thorium and of course in this room we’re hearing it but we have to appreciate how little we hear about it outside of gatherings like this we almost hear about it not at all in March of 2000 I just graduated from Georgia Tech and I went to Huntsville Alabama started working for NASA and one of the first projects I worked on in my group was a nuclear-powered rocket I didn’t know a lot about nuclear and I was working with a colleague down the hall from me and one day I was in his office and noticed the book on the shelf fluid fuel reactors and I could tell it was an old book if I opened it up it was published in 1958 by the Atomic Energy Commission and I said well what’s this book about he said oh I I remember hearing some of the old-timers at Oakridge talk about a different kind of nuclear reactor they worked on that was based on fluid fuel rather than solid feeling huh never heard anything like that before additionally I saw the book talking a lot about thorium and from the book it seemed to say that it had something to do with making nuclear energy I thought I need to get further education and I’ll probably find out why it’s not that great instead what I found out was it was even better than I thought my lawn strim please forgive my ignorance but what is thorium I’m very grateful to the noble Baroness for this question because clearly I’ve learned quite a lot about it recently it is of course for those that wish to know thank you very much it is named after the north god thor it is comes out of monazites sands which are largely found in India and Norway and there all sorts of other facts that she can find in Wikipedia as indeed I did Lords my Lords my lord thorium is a naturally occurring fairly abundant mineral that has the potential to release great amounts of energy if utilized in the right kind of nuclear reactor it is found in every nation in the world if you pick up a rock it’s likely their story minutes very likely that there’s thorium in that inspected certain there is thorium in the granite of this rock right here if we had a Geiger counter we would be able to detect it thorium will power the world that’s our new bumper sticker it’s gonna say thorium will power the world ask me how they have the little QR code there that’s my new version of asking me about thorium maybe the last thing is just introduce yourself I’m John pitch just so we have that shouldn’t be dramatic sure the Sun be like rising behind me and John coach so I’m I’m John coach I’m the executive director of the thorium Energy Alliance that’s Vince lockhouse keying the grain potentate oh yeah thorium knowledge and the dispenser of knowledge yeah exactly and truth a company hired us to look at different materials the thorium was one of them the short version is like what can you do a thorium I’m like I can’t do with thorium it’s sort of like garbage in a way and he’s like oh I’m like but it might save the world and he’s like I’m gonna be garbage and save the world I’m like ad take a long time to explain you as well can I invest in it I’m like nah that’s garbage and he’s like I got damaged so you’ll move on to cobalt or whatever and but I never lost it I’m like man you could save the world with this stuff it’s unbelievable the trouble is you know it starts to sound like too fantastical almost right out of the bio you can’t make nuclear weapons from it it’s available it’s right there on the ground then it’s all around us you know you’re just like have I gone back to an ashram in the 60s or something you know free energy man you know it’ll seem fantastical it’s like are you telling me that serious people and scientists are looking into such a thing and to think that to think that this could have been common knowledge you know 35 years ago is upsetting you know but the the fact that we still have this opportunity is exciting and even if it does sound like you know secret sauce and magic beans and things like that I’m Alexis Madrigal I am a senior editor here at the Atlantic and I wrote a book about the history of energy technology called power in the dream we’re here at the Atlantic’s new offices in the Watergate building which of course is where the events occurred that eventually brought down Richard Nixon which has nothing to do with us but it’s also just interesting well I think we have a really difficult time defining you know what’s green and what’s what’s not green but I’ve decided that for myself the most important the dominant issue the thing that could wreck every ecosystem on the planet is climate change and so therefore that’s what I’m going to focus on so for me nuclear power is a green power source the most exciting thing about nuclear power is that it could actually work in a way that saves the world and the and the scary thing about it is that I’m not sure as society we are good and I’m talking about American society are good at dealing with difficult socio technical problems like how you run a nuclear industry you know there’s a guy named Alvin Weinberg who is really kind of a hero of mine even though he was a big nuclear advocate never and a lot about you know solar and wind he wanted to try and deal with long-term energy issues in ways that were serious and he wrote a lot about what he called the Faustian bargain of nuclear power we’re essentially like we’re being given this infinite power source but as society we have to like come up with ways of dealing with it or it’s going to destroy us the thing that’s sad is that that was like in 1960 and here we are like 50 years later and the United States still hasn’t come up with a good solution for waste and still hasn’t come up with a good way of even dealing rationally with what kind of nuclear power we won’t have I basically asked the question everybody else has you know why are we doing this but I’m the kind of guy that that you know if I don’t like the answer of why aren’t we doing this I decided you know well I’m gonna do it this building is a 1889 firehouse that I bought and it’s basically my workshop so it’s an old ass house and we redid all the brickwork Chuck pointed it you know took about ten years to do it like one chunk at a time what are kids inspired by today you know kids aren’t inspired by the moon shot they’re inspired by you know Farmville on facebook and it’s it’s kind of sad that you know the best and brightest minds don’t work with these anymore it’s that sort of thing that I feel like boy if I can just bring a little bit of that back to the United States where you know people got paid for making things we keep such a low profile here to begin with you know we do all this engineering work for companies all on the world and yeah nobody in this town really understands what it is we do so you know thorium would just be one more thing you know if you’re like hey yeah we do we do thorium work out of that building too it’s it’s just like this is like uh-huh okay oh good to see you John this will be a really simplified version of a molten salt reactor a decade before he called nuclear power society’s biggest Faustian bargain alvin weinberg was one of the country’s leading nuclear physicists he invented the light water reactor the world’s most common kind today the type used at Fukushima but in the 1960s as director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory he began to pursue another idea called the molten salt reactor instead of operating at high pressure with a solid fuel made of uranium it worked at low pressure using a liquid fuel that could be made of thorium thorium has many advantages it can produce about 90 times as much energy as uranium and a fraction of the waste and that waste isn’t useful for making bombs the reactor was considered walk away safe because it relied on physics not machines or humans to keep the reaction under control so far the milk the molten salt reactor experiment has operated successfully and has earned a reputation for reliability I think that someday the world will have commercial power reactors of both the uranium plutonium and the thorium uranium fuel cycle types I think when people see it they understand it a lot better so a light water reactor you’re constantly trying to keep it from going out of control you’re constantly trying to manage it with control rods and moving the fuel rods molten salt reactor is is the opposite you’re constantly trying to keep it liquid you’re trying to keep it reactive you’re trying to keep it circulating and if it ever stopped it would just it would just drain down into the drain tank or solidify in place or just stop reacting so it’s a it’s just a much better design overall this thing can’t explode this thing is ready to explode and you got to have redundant systems you got to have a pump and a pump and a pump and a pump you know it’s not walk away safe it’s not self controlled you need you know computers and operators and controllers to constantly monitor this thing whereas this thing’s completely self regulated if an earthquake and a 747 and a tidal wave hit it all at once and the chamber tipped over what would happen the fluid would flow into this hot sell down this pool and into the storage tank despite some hiccups the reactor ran successfully for a record six years but Alvin Weinberg’s concerns about the safety of light water reactors which were then being built in the United States had made him unpopular inside the Nixon administration in 1973 he was fired and the reactor was shut down project was mentioned terminated by still thinkin well eventually people will come back to this way crying damn good today the research lives on through the internet on countless websites thorium fans say the United States could build a new reactor with the right laws around a billion dollars and public support there’s environmental organizations that are just like the only good nuclear power plant is the one in the sky you know and it’s like yeah yeah yeah fine that’s super great you know when you’re popping popcorn on the one sunny day a year in the middle of the day cuz that’s the only time you get your solar stove to work you know give me a call I’ll be over you know and we’ll do our hand puppet shows in front of your candle your beeswax candle alternative energies like solar and wind aren’t yet capable of matching the carbon free energy produced by the United States 104 nuclear reactors but that doesn’t matter much to the people who live near Indian Point the 50 year old power station outside of New York City like many other reactors Indian points weren’t originally designed to last this long today residents have another dream in mind now I know some of you making my hat exponent protection when you’ve acted protective years I call for your immediate resignation the plan is locating 34 miles from Times Square it’s a very old plan is from the first generation of nuclear plants the same generation that Fukushima is from and other plants that have had major problems are from Three Mile Island you really have an accident waiting to happen we should take steps now to secure the nuclear waste upon the site to shut the plant down and decommission to make it safer you know newer design plants are potentially a better design although some of them are actually worse designs than the current plants the fact is when you get down to it you know there is no way you can absolutely guarantee you safety of a nuclear why I think it’s pretty obvious when you look at the past 200 years of human development and every new technology has spawned almost exponentially more new problems and I’m here if you can look down here we’re naked to nukes we’re all naked to nukes and I can just give you the scream of the Fukushima’s mothers after the disaster in Japan the thorium movement has a new opportunity to capture the public’s imagination now they’re not just trying to influence change online but at conferences right in Congress’s backyard this is our third conference and the intent is to spread the word about tremendous benefits of using thorium as energy you get this mix of the enthusiasts and and sort of the pro-am person and the and the guy that just learned about this over the Internet and it’s just like why are we doing this and you’re getting the hi dungeon and they’re like I this has got to be done we must do this the problem with thorium is that it’s too good to be yours don’t say it’s too good to be true the moon landing was too good to be true this watch is too good to be true oh and here they are so many other things it’s a gift from God that we have thorium it’s only one element that we can do this with and I’m looking forward to this moving on to the next generation hopefully in my lifetime that we do have a new generation of nuclear power fueled by thorium people see nuclear energy as me that’s touching you they’re not willing to trust a new development but it really just think that that’s the way that it’s going to take a while is because you have to change the whole system instead of just changing a few people’s minds the whole world waits to see what the United States will do and it’s up to us to move on this because if if we move on it then it’ll free the rest of the world to pursue this stuff too this would be like the great good thing that America could do not just for itself but for the world the flip side of that is that America could suddenly lose a lot of legitimacy in the world if too much time goes on you have too much time passes other countries are going to say this is too great of an opportunity and willing to take the risk and go and pursue this on our own this is a book which I note in Japanese but the meaning is a sodium nuclear power which is peaceful energies we’ve been talking about passive safety in the lifter community for a very long time after Fukushima a lot of people started to pay much greater attention to this aspect of the reactor but we are no johnny-come-lately to this when you’re an undergraduate or graduate nuclear engineering student you’ll learn about thorium sort of as a side topic but not as something that seriously would be used in the business I’m Paul Roby I’m an army colonel and I work in the army training and Doctrine Command I’m responsible for operational energy concepts for the army so I look at the requirements that soldiers need to operate in places like Afghanistan or other parts of the world and the thing that’s made me interested in thorium is say that it may have some benefits in terms of proliferation safety processing efficiency maybe even economy and so it’s certainly an intriguing technology we see they the Indians and the Chinese and others pursuing thorium as a potential source and so it certainly makes you wonder if that isn’t something that we should be looking into if they find it so interesting cute tell me what the role of thorium may be what the thinking is on thorium as a fuel what the advantages are what the disadvantages are with the pros and cons are of thorium while we are certainly interested in looking continuing to look at thorium as a possibility and particularly a possibility for for the future the fact remains that we have an entire fuel cycle built up around uranium and it would be a dramatic shift and very costly shift to move on any sort of short time scale to thorium how did we get locked into a technology as difficult and risky as the uranium light-water reactor when the Navy’s Admiral Hyman rickover was looking for a reactor to power his communist fighting submarines in the 1950s he ran a critical test of the light water reactor and it worked you know these things are big complicated systems the tests are all very risky it’s very difficult to get things right so once something starts working everyone just says well that one worked let’s just keep doing that whether or not the design technically is the one that we would choose that the military liked uranium because it could be turned into weapons easily an industry eager to keep costs low wanted to stick with the technology it already knew other designs slowly vanished and the light water reactor dominated the other key actors in this whole drama are General Electric and Westinghouse after the war General Electric and Westinghouse wanted to retain the technological advantage that they had over other power plant builders those companies started to promote it heavily for the reason that they could make a lot more money on it and they had a lot fewer competitors and so you had a constellation of actors who all wanted a particular design that is to say the one that was out there the boiling water and reactor to just go they wanted these these basic designs to just be the ones that we standardize on and then start making money from whether or not they were in an ideal world the one that we would want to use in every other field of technology development were happy to see an improvement a technology nobody wants 1950s computers nobody wants 1950s cars why are we satisfied with 1950s reactors you know why don’t we want to see technological advance nobody else says you know you got it you got to stop developing computer technology we don’t want people to think old computers aren’t good you know nobody says that writes okay a fateful step very recently I started a company to try to make this vision come true along with my partner Kirk Tori’s and so we’re going to be introducing live energy to you today a new company and one devoted to making thorium a reality these sort of small and modular nuclear reactors are just really exciting you can imagine them being used in all kinds of different ways you can imagine them I mean one of the big problems right now with nuclear power takes like eight or ten years to build a plant so you can imagine them being deployed much faster which we’re gonna need faster deployment if we really want to decarbonize our energy system but I think the the basic thing is we’re only going to find out by trying it out I mean the reality of these like sort of complex engineered systems is that on paper they look one way and then when you put them into practice they look another and we need to try them out those things aren’t really getting a hearing and I think that’s something that you probably would hear most specifically from the thorium guys it’s like a small group that’s like hearty band of people who’ve been able to get themselves a feature in Wired but I’m going to get themselves a real hearing at the levels where they need to in order to generate a real industry we have to get some key legislative aides and write your legislation writers to convince the world that it’s for real the thorium movement can’t rely on promises of magic alone we’ve heard those kinds of promises before and the reality hasn’t been pretty but their crusade shows how progress is made by failing and learning by believing and asking big questions for the thorium guys the question now isn’t if but when and for the rest of society the questions they ask of us are more complicated how are we going to answer them the final word though is that it’s still you’re just looking over that hill and there’s a lot of fog in that future and you know maybe China will beat us maybe something else happens we were hoping for something that would really be a game-changer that would say we’re going to switch to small modular reactors and we’re going to put our support behind innovative reactor designs and and maybe even most of all we’re going to support research into thorium something like that would energize the world and you know bring bring us back in a in a place of preeminence you know that you all are the future of energy you’re the future of energy in the future is today and right now and for forever and ever this is what you guys have seen it I’m hoping that number one it doesn’t take all that many people to change the world and number two through the internet and social media we can find each other you know most people aren’t like us they aren’t interested in these things that’s okay we don’t need most people we need some people the conference well done I think we’re gonna get a lot of good good action out of this thing we always do don’t we Kirk absolutely they keep getting better everyone get a good one it’s the best one yeah yeah it’s pretty good right on America has done tremendous things before we have developed technologies we’ve crossed a country with a railroad put a man on the moon we can do this this may be one of the greatest of all our accomplishments is to unlock an energy source that can last for hundreds of thousands of years and the time has come where we must do it we are rapidly running out of alternatives I know we Kia I hope that we choose to you

Danny Hutson

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