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MotherBoard TV: The Thorium Dream
November 28, 2011 1:08 PM   Subscribe

MotherBoard TV: The Thorium Dream If, like many of the world's leaders, you are eager for a dependable and cheap energy source that doesn't spew toxins and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere -- and that doesn't result in terrible, billion dollar accidents -- you can end your search now. At least, that's the news from a tight-knit collective of energy blogs, dedicated to a common but relatively unknown metal called thorium. In the right kind of nuclear reactor, they say, thorium could power the world forever -- and without the problems that come with the nuclear energy we use today, from Fukushima-like meltdowns to the difficult by-products of plutonium that leave behind radioactive waste and weapons material. The idea certainly sounds like the stuff of fringe internet conspiracists, but it was actually born in the U.S. government's major atomic lab in the 1960s under the auspices of one of the country's most respected nuclear scientists, and the inventor of today's most common kind of nuclear technology, the light water reactor. - Thorium: World's Greatest Energy Breakthrough?

previously on metafilter

alternate youtube link for The Thorium Dream

Kirk Sorensen: Can Thorium end our energy crisis?

The Oil Drum: The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Paradigm

The Norwegian oil and energy corp Aker Solutions bought Dr. Carlo Rubbia's patent for this thorium fuel cycle, and is working on his design for a proton accelerator.

India plans 'safer' nuclear plant powered by thorium

Safe nuclear does exist, and China is leading the way with Thorium:
“If it begins to overheat, a little plug melts and the salts drain into a pan. There is no need for computers, or the sort of electrical pumps that were crippled by the tsunami. The reactor saves itself,” he said. They operate at atmospheric pressure so you don’t have the sort of hydrogen explosions we’ve seen in Japan. One of these reactors would have come through the tsunami just fine. There would have been no radiation release.”

Thorium-Based Molten Salt Reactors: a pdf that sums up the history and the technology of Thorium reactors
When used in a reactor to breed 233U for fission, Thorium has so high an energy density that
12 grams (about 4 pennies) provides enough energy to supply a typical American’s needs for a decade.
That much Thorium can be found in about any cubic meter of rock on Earth, Moon or Mars. DoE has a 3200-ton
stockpile – enough for years of all US energy needs without mining. Mining of ‘rare earths’ typically
yields abundant Thorium as a byproduct"


perhaps this will lead to a new ATOMIC AGE
posted by ninjew (58 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
Let me guess, electricity will be too cheap to meter.
posted by localroger at 1:21 PM on November 28, 2011 [15 favorites]


Oh wow, great post. I hope some scientists can weigh in on the feasibility of this.

Not being a scientist, I can only add that Thorium is named after the Norse god of thunder, which makes the idea of it powering our society for hundreds of thousands of years even more rocking.
posted by omnikron at 1:22 PM on November 28, 2011


The only problems with the thorium fuel cycle, as I understand them -- and they're far smaller than with most alternatives -- fall into two major categories:

1. To kick off the thorium fuel cycle, you need to irradiate natural thorium with slow neutrons, typically in a breeder reactor that's initially fueled with naturally-fissile uranium. This is exactly the sort of thing that you could also use to create plutonium, if you wanted to, and historically there is a lot of suspicion directed at anybody who starts building a breeder reactor, pretty much for this reason. Granted, you only need the uranium-fueled breeder to start the thorium cycle, so in theory the nuclear-armed countries could do that part and hand out irradiated thorium-fuel mix, but I'm not sure if you'd really want to be shipping tank trucks of the stuff around.

2. Although extracting weaponizable U-233 from a thorium reactor, particularly a liquid-fuel reactor, is very difficult, it's not terribly hard to introduce uranium cladding or rods into the core such that you start producing plutonium from the surplus neutrons. Thus, it's still the sort of thing that some people might object to other people having. An inspection regime would probably still be required to reduce the perceived proliferation risk.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:30 PM on November 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


Let me guess, electricity will be too cheap to meter.

I can understand the temptation to snark, but it would be sad if we failed to exploit a genuinely revolutionary energy source because we got disappointed by a related technology. I tend to find the arguments on both sides of the nuclear power issue frustratingly thin. I'd love to see a really good "here are all the pros and ALSO all the cons" analysis. Anyone?
posted by yoink at 1:30 PM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


The IAEA report on thorium reactors.

What I took away: Thorium has a number of hurdles that would make it expensive to develop, and, since we already have invested a huge amount into uranium reactors (partially because they were useful in building weapons), it doesn't seem incredibly economically viable to invest in the system, especially as it may end up being more costly than uranium in some ways.
posted by blahblahblah at 1:31 PM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


As a scientist and former nuclear reactor operator: yes, they are pretty great devices. Why don't we use it? In large part because we sunk so much effort into getting light water reactor designs working and approved that there was no will left to keep the thorium program rolling. Hyman Rickover had a dream too soon.
posted by andorphin at 1:33 PM on November 28, 2011 [10 favorites]


Oh, and some negatives from the (anti-nuclear, but nobel-prize winning) Physicians for Social Responsibility.
posted by blahblahblah at 1:34 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thorium is named after the Norse god of thunder

I think I've heard of that one...Thoriua? Isn't she the one with the bow that shoots lightning bolts?
posted by straight at 1:34 PM on November 28, 2011


Thorium lit our homes in the past, now it may again?
posted by TedW at 1:34 PM on November 28, 2011


The reactor saves itself

FWIW, this claim is made about every nuclear reactor design.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:34 PM on November 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


Great post! Thorium plants have a lot of potential, but don't kid yourself, the challenge is MUCH more difficult than this video suggests.

First of all, a liquid thorium plant (LFTR) will require a fuel reprocessing facility built into the reactor. The reactor itself might be quite safe, but I would worry about the added complication of keeping this extra facility and all the associated plumbing secure from leaks.

The second thing is really the dealbreaker. To match the level of refinement and safety analysis present in light water reactors (by far the dominant type) would take an equal amount of R&D effort (60 years worth!). Neither governments nor commercial developers have any appetite these days to risk that much into fission reactors. Even if the payoff is spectacular (it has been for light water reactors, and I don't doubt it would be for LFTRs) it's not the 50s anymore.
posted by Popular Ethics at 1:39 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


TANSTAAFL
posted by tommasz at 1:40 PM on November 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


FWIW, this claim is made about every nuclear reactor design.

That's really not true--although certainly there have been specific instances of politicians and engineers giving overly sanguine statements about the safety of older reactor designs. But the issue isn't whether or not the claim has ever been made, it's whether or not the claim is true. It appears that it is, in fact, true of Thorium reactors. If you know otherwise, it would be useful to provide a citation.
posted by yoink at 1:44 PM on November 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


Ahh, Thorium.

Really, Thorium itself is pretty useless as a fissile material -- 231Th is fissile, but the vastly more common 232Th isn't. It is, however, fertile -- if you fling another neutron at it, you get 233Th, which decays with a beta to 233Pa (plus an electron and antineutrino, it's a β- decay) and then, via another beta decay, to 233U.

You might have heard of that uranium stuff, and while 233U isn't quite as good as 235U in a reactor, it's more than good enough -- you could make a weapon out of 233U, if you had enough.

The good part of this. There's a *lot* more Thorium on the planet, and even better, the most commonly occurring isotope is the one we want, and even better, the isotopes we don't want decay so quickly that the ore is basically pure. None of that nasty "pull the 235U out of the ore" problem. Thorium Dioxide (most reactor fuels are in oxide form) has a higher melting point and a higher thermal conductivity, making meltdowns less probable. Finally, with that 233U comes 232U, which is a nasty gamma emitter and impossible to separate out by chemical means, which makes it much harder to use in nuclear weapons. Finally, there are less actinides after the fuel is consumed, so it's a bit easier to clean up.

The bad part. You need something to make 232Th fissile. That's going to be one of the common fissionables. In open fuel cycles, you need to burn more of it, since you need to first convert it into a fissionable, then fission it, then deal with the fact that the half life of 233Pa is about 27 days, which is about 12 times longer than the half life of the final fission products. That means, during use, significant amounts of protactinium build up -- which is a neutron adsorber, which means you need more neutrons to keep the cycle going. This results in a very high burnup rate, and that's hard to deal with.

To really make it sing, you need a closed cycle where you're pulling out everything that isn't either 232Th awaiting activation or 233U fissioning, and letting the 233Pa finish decaying to 233U outside the reactor, then sending it back in. This is dicey work.

Finally, though -- it's radioactive fission. Anybody against U and Pu fission will be against this.
posted by eriko at 1:44 PM on November 28, 2011 [42 favorites]


OTOH, as suggested in the last few links, China or India may pick up where the US left off. To accommodate their rapid growth, they're staring down the barrel of a thousand more coal-fired plants. Furthermore they both have an active nuclear R&D program. The politics and economics might make more sense over there.
posted by Popular Ethics at 1:46 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


The comments in this FPP are why I love Metafilter.
posted by dry white toast at 1:47 PM on November 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm looking forward to the discussion on this, because we all know nothing about new power sources is as easy or clean as it usually gets presented.

But in reading one of the articles, I noticed this quote and was wondering if someone could shed some insight:

...the US has long since dropped the ball. Further evidence of Barack `Obama’s “Sputnik moment”, you could say.

I'm trying to parse this - is the author trying to claim that the US not following up on this possibility in the 1960's is somehow the fault of the Obama administation? Or am I misreading?
posted by never used baby shoes at 1:47 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, my thorium story:

My grandfather used to work on the original Vanguard rocket, the first attempt by the US to launch a satellite into space. He helped build the launchpad and fire suppression system. The rocket famously exploded, though the launchpad (mostly) survived.

Engineers being engineers, my grandfather ran out to the launchpad and, with others, gathered pieces of the rocket as souvenirs. He gave one to my dad, who gave it to me.

Fast-forward a couple decades. I have been displaying this rocket piece on my mantle, right over the desk where my (now pregnant) wife sits. I decide to try to find out more about the rocket itself, since the metal is interesting and odd- thin and light. I read some technical manuals and find out that the skin of the Vanguard is made out of something called Mag-Thor alloy. Mag-Thor is magnesium-thorium, which is, of course, radioactive. And it is hanging over my wife's head every day. My pregnant wife's head.

I panic.

Fortunately, at the time I was at MIT, which has a radiation testing lab. I grab the rocket piece, throw it into a metal safe, and run down to the lab. The receptionist reassures me that it isn't a big deal, and that he has "several souvenirs that can only be stored behind several inches of leaded glass." This does not comfort me. They also say that this is not the weirdest thing they tested - they actually looked at tootsie rolls made at the local plant in Cambridge in the 1980s, for fear that it had used Ukrainian chocolate (it hadn't).

After a Geiger countering (which clicks in a way that causes pure suspense), it turns out that I am in the clear. I have not irradiated my wife and unborn child (though she did later develop spider powers for unrelated reasons). And the piece of the Vanguard is still in my office.

And, I think, that is why all nuclear reactors, even thorium, make us nervous - radiation is invisible, insidious, and scary, even if we know that they are ultimately better for the world than burning fuels.
posted by blahblahblah at 1:48 PM on November 28, 2011 [35 favorites]


CNN collaborating/repeating content from VICE magazine? The bloggers have won!

I know VICE isn't a blog, but geeze, this is crazy!
posted by furtive at 1:48 PM on November 28, 2011


I'm gonna corner the market on camping lantern mantles!
posted by dr_dank at 1:52 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sweet! If what you all say about Thorium not being as much of an immediate silver bullet as hoped is true... then that means I don't have to give up my ongoing work on a desktop sonoluminescent bubble fusion battery!


In all seriousness, I've come to understand- in part from Metafilter- that the real issue isn't power generation, it's power storage: the hydrocarbons of fossil fuels are powered by solar, and there are clean natural sources to provide the world's power if we wanted it... but we haven't found a match for that much energy in the same stable density. And until we do, thorium-powered electrical grids won't really make car/plane/boat fuels obsolete. Sure, thorium or other nuclear powered plants would make our homes, offices, and factories all cleanly powered- and that's huge- but we still spend a lot of energy moving things around including people and goods, and that form of energy has to be portable.

Invent some nano-carbon "black goo" that stably stores the same energy per gallon and weight as gas does today, and it seems you'll really have something that can be 'recharged' at a solar/wind/geothermal/nuclear plant as a clean fossil fuel replacement.
posted by hincandenza at 1:55 PM on November 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


but it would be sad if we failed to exploit a genuinely revolutionary energy source

What's genuinely revolutionary about it? It's the next iteration* of the same old capital intensive, centralized, rent-seeking power generation business model we've been saddled with for the last hundred years or so.

------------------
*Potentially.
posted by notyou at 1:57 PM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


radiation is invisible, insidious, and scary

Well, so is carbon monoxide, and frankly it's harder to detect, too. But yet people burn kerosene in unvented heaters in their homes all the time. The issue is entirely one of familiarity and media coverage. We quickly learn to be blase about the things we see everyday, regardless of how hazardous they really are, and we fear the things we might run into once in a lifetime.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:57 PM on November 28, 2011 [6 favorites]


It appears that it is, in fact, true of Thorium reactors.

Are there working, non-research, production reactors to evaluate safety records, to make that claim? It's quite easy to claim a design is foolproof — on paper — and, further, it's quite a claim to make in the field of nuclear technology, in light of numerous well-cited accidents over the last six decades. But I'm of the school that skepticism about extraordinary claims is generally wise.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:02 PM on November 28, 2011


Well, I'm not going to start being critical of the physics, but from a film criticism perspective, The Thorium Dream lacked one crucial thing: 30 seconds of exposition of how a thorium reactor works.

The movie was effectively a lot of footage of guys running around saying "Thorium is great! Thorium is SO cool as a reactor fuel that ... ". But the filmmakers forgot that this is a movie, so you have to show people.
posted by Relay at 2:12 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


In all seriousness, I've come to understand- in part from Metafilter- that the real issue isn't power generation, it's power storage: the hydrocarbons of fossil fuels are powered by solar, and there are clean natural sources to provide the world's power if we wanted it... but we haven't found a match for that much energy in the same stable density. And until we do, thorium-powered electrical grids won't really make car/plane/boat fuels obsolete. Sure, thorium or other nuclear powered plants would make our homes, offices, and factories all cleanly powered- and that's huge- but we still spend a lot of energy moving things around including people and goods, and that form of energy has to be portable.

Storage is an issue, but I dont think its the issue in the way you have it here. Its really economics, we can do a lot of the things we want to do with other tech, and we could probably speed up renewables and other tech (potentially including things like the thorium reactor) by investing in it if we needed to but its cheaper to burn fossil fuels, in part because the FF industry has managed to keep such a huge fraction of their costs externalised. There has been and largely remains insufficient incentive to make the long term investment in new energy tech while we can still get away with FF use.

A typical country consumes about 25% of its energy in electrical generation, about 40-50% on heating and ~25-30% on transport. the latter is the one that will be truly difficult to move away from FF as you say, with electric vehicles currently looking the best bet. Many countries are already modelling for the impact of electric car demand on capacity and demand, and including a look at the potential this will offer for storage at the same time.
posted by biffa at 2:13 PM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


...historically there is a lot of suspicion directed at anybody who starts building a breeder reactor, pretty much for this reason...

Thus, it's still the sort of thing that some people might object to other people having.


As if the prospect of a rogue state gaining access to revolutionary technology capable of cheaply powering their society for thousands of years wouldn't in itself be used as sufficient justification for air strikes....
posted by ceribus peribus at 2:19 PM on November 28, 2011


There are many dangerous Fukushima style plants around the U.S. that have already exceeded their 40 year lifespan for which they were designed but bribed their way into 20 year extensions.

We need to be dismantling these disasters in waiting whether it means replacing them with new nuclear power plants or not. We should obviously investigate new reactor designs as part of those process.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:01 PM on November 28, 2011


In the BBC Horizon episode, "Can We Make a Star on Earth" (torrents are out there), Brian Cox summarizes by saying that fusion is the only "get out of jail" energy card we have.

The experts presented also guess that we'll have viable fusion between 2025 and 2035. What I wonder is if we put more resources and study behind fusion if we could get there faster. It seems like the energy endgame, and I am continually taunted by the firey orb in the sky when I think about it.
posted by pashdown at 3:08 PM on November 28, 2011


...the US has long since dropped the ball. Further evidence of Barack `Obama’s “Sputnik moment”, you could say.

I'm trying to parse this - is the author trying to claim that the US not following up on this possibility in the 1960's is somehow the fault of the Obama administation? Or am I misreading?


I think the author is claiming (very clumsily) that in the 60s we missed an opportunity (with thorium) of the type to which Obama was referring when he made the "Sputnik moment" statement.
posted by Huck500 at 3:28 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks Huck500. That whole column was rather clumsily written, so that explanation makes a lot of sense.
posted by never used baby shoes at 3:34 PM on November 28, 2011


Sorry to break it to you but fusion isn't a get out of jail card either.

The problem with fusion is that all of the reactions we have a realistic chance of driving on an industrial scale generate metric bucktloads of fast neutrons. Nobody believes the proton cycle, the four-step reaction which powers stars and doesn't produce free neutrons, is attainable in a reactor made of solid matter.

This was one of the first clues that the cold fusion reaction wasn't what its discoverers thought: Their reactor wasn't shielded, and they were still alive.

And high neutron flux is very nasty business. It knocks atoms out of metal crystal lattices, making them weak and brittle. It makes a lot of atoms radioactive, some dangerously so, and one of those is aluminum. Getting pure materials absent any of the dangerously neutron-absorbing elements is actually very hard, so eventually the reactor components themselves become dangerous radioactive scrap.

Oh, and you can use it to make plutonium. Very easily. And there is no once the cycle is started workaround to that; any fusion reactor will be able to make significant amounts of plutonium. As mentioned upthread, there are folks who won't like that even if it really does make the electricity itself too cheap to meter.
posted by localroger at 3:37 PM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


The experts presented also guess that we'll have viable fusion between 2025 and 2035.

Unfortunately we don't have until 2025 to have a viable alternative to fossil fuel. I would also guess that by viable they mean a working piece of kit that stays stable and produces more energy than it uses, not necessarily economically viable, nor even capable of producing the amount fo energy that is withins niffing distance of being economically viable, and still time consuming and expensive to replicate. Here is the time frame for the Iinternational Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER):

2006 Seven participants formally agreed to fund the creation of a nuclear fusion reactor.
2008 Site preparation start, ITER itinerary start.
2009 Site preparation completion.
2010 Tokamak complex excavation start.
2011 Tokamak complex construction start.
2015 Predicted: Tokamak assembly start.
2018 Predicted: Tokamak assembly completion, start torus pumpdown.
November 2019 Predicted: Achievement of first plasma.
2026 Predicted: Start of deuterium-tritium operation.
2038 Predicted: End of project.

It doesn't really bode well for this being an alternative that will prevent climate change does it? I work in energy policy and the standing line is that fusion power is 50 years away. And its been 50 years away for quite a while. Pointedly, no one models for technology development beyond 50 years.
posted by biffa at 3:47 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


October 2019 Predicted: Push back "achievement of first plasma" date another 20 or 30 years.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:30 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


jeffburdges: "There are many dangerous Fukushima style plants around the U.S. that have already exceeded their 40 year lifespan for which they were designed but bribed their way into 20 year extensions."

This has been debated extensively elsewhere, but Fukushima didn't fail because it was old, or because the operator had a poor safety record.
posted by schmod at 4:39 PM on November 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


Pointedly, no one models for technology development beyond 50 years.

50 years ago it was 1961. Around that time, 50 years in the future we were going to have computers weighing less than a ton fitting in a single room, and cars that fly.
posted by localroger at 4:44 PM on November 28, 2011


Nobody believes the proton cycle, the four-step reaction which powers stars and doesn't produce free neutrons, is attainable in a reactor made of solid matter.

Bussard believed, and his successors too, that pB11 fusion is possible.
posted by pashdown at 5:00 PM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


The experts presented also guess that we'll have viable fusion between 2025 and 2035.

Yeah, no. It's forever been "20 or 30 years of development" away. There's a mefite - I can't remember who but a pretty active one (at least at one stage) who actually wrote a book about why fusion's crap.
posted by smoke at 5:43 PM on November 28, 2011


pashdown, even the wiki article reflects some skepticism about this with which I'd concur. I don't think you'd ever get pure pB11 fusion -- you'd always have neutron creating side reactions. Only experiment will show for sure, but it's a very long shot and the fact is most of the people pushing fusion don't even realize neutrons are such a problem.
posted by localroger at 5:59 PM on November 28, 2011


schmod: "This has been debated extensively elsewhere, but Fukushima didn't fail because it was old, or because the operator had a poor safety record."

Although both of those are true statements.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:03 PM on November 28, 2011


LFTRs seem like a promising transitional step. This was interesting.
posted by sfts2 at 6:51 PM on November 28, 2011


Sorry. I meant to imply that this topic has been debated elsewhere, so I'll reiterate that there's virtually no debate that Fukushima's age, or the actions by the plant personnel contributed to the disaster in any meaningful way.

On the other hand, one could easily argue that the plant's design was outdated, and should have either been retrofitted or retired as a result. Unfortunately, such nuance is rarely present in the nuclear power debate. This debate itself has effectively halted the construction of any new plants, which makes it far more attractive to continue to operate old/outdated plants, which is a worst-of-both-worlds scenario for all parties involved.
posted by schmod at 9:10 PM on November 28, 2011


Getting pure materials absent any of the dangerously neutron-absorbing elements is actually very hard, so eventually the reactor components themselves become dangerous radioactive scrap.

I was curious about this and googled across this slide show from 2005 or 2006 that discusses various aspects of the problem of designing low-activation materials for use in fusion reactors.

How dangerous is it really, though? If it's just activated stuff it's nothing you'd want to build your house out of or put in a normal landfill but it's nowhere near as bad as spent fuel from fission reactors, right? I would wonder how the volume of waste produced compares to the radioactive waste produced by the natural gas industry from radon scaling. (Search for "radioactive waste" in this book, Fundamentals of Natural Gas Processing.)
posted by XMLicious at 9:12 PM on November 28, 2011


I hesitated to involve 'peak resources' anywhere in this post, and ultimately decided not to. i wanted to see a discussion about the potential for a better energy solution. and, so far we've had a great, informative, and non-hyperbolic commentary.

but maybe there's no reason to try to tackle the costs and the problems with Thorium energy (or any other fossil fuel alternate) if we (as a world population) aren't staring at the loaded guns of carbon-based energy. lately i've been feeling particularly doom-y. i'm seeing ordinary people camping in the street because they have no work and no money (yelling at the banks is both necessary andscapegoating). what they're really angry at is resource constraints. being able to work and afford to eat and house yourself have become ridiculously difficult, because there's no growth to allow for those things to BE affordable. yeah the banks did whatever the f* they wanted, but a major growth period would have erased all their malfeasance from the public consciousness anyways. but people find it hard to forget when they're living day-to-day after having their futures erased.

growth is energy. energy allows growth. while it is true efficiency can alter the graphs and pull the lines apart a bit, ultimately you won't feed, house, and transport people without it. at least not at 7b and rising.

but poking holes in the ground and pulling out goo/gas/rocks is a game we're starting to lose. every time there's a hint of potential for growth to resume, oil prices start climbing again. a sustained period of growth could start pushing it back towards $150/bbl, a price we've already more or less seen. spending on energy starts pushing ordinary spending out of whack, and growth falls. recessions start, and the cycle starts all over. however much there is left is fucking irrelevant at this point. if we have 100 years left, great. that says peak oil right there anyways. and that second 100 years will be far more difficult and costly (to energy consumers) relative to other expenditures.

so when i stumbled on that film over the weekend.. I dunno.. I felt like there's at least the potential that we could find a new way to power our future. i felt a slight twinge of optimism. is dealing with radiation waste something we're not dealing with anyways right now? or nuclear proliferation? or reactor design? or costs? because i have to say, climate change, a giant goopy Gulf of Mexico, wars, recessions, negative growth, massive unemployment, etc., they all kinda suck. i'd rather face some difficult challenges with a possibility of change than continue on our current path. because i have to say, right now, the world is NOT looking like too much f*ing fun for the next 25+ years without the change.
posted by ninjew at 12:22 AM on November 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


biffa wrote: A typical country consumes about 25% of its energy in electrical generation, about 40-50% on heating and ~25-30% on transport. the latter is the one that will be truly difficult to move away from FF as you say, with electric vehicles currently looking the best bet.

As was noted in one of the linked videos, with enough energy available, you can synthesize fossil fuels from carbon that's already in the carbon cycle. The problem isn't as much that we burn stuff, as we've figured out how to burn it reasonably cleanly, but that we dig carbon up out of the ground and burn it.
posted by wierdo at 1:04 AM on November 29, 2011


Honestly, I'm in favor of abundant energy production but it seems likely to me that it would accelerate the rate at which we fuck everything up; I just think we're more likely to survive the various catastrophes we've caused / we're causing with abundant energy than without it.

(Like, for example, if we had limitless energy we'd be able to desalinate seawater quickly enough to solve all our water problems... which would generate immense quantities of saline waste that we'd probably end up releasing as pollutants.)
posted by XMLicious at 1:28 AM on November 29, 2011


As was noted in one of the linked videos, with enough energy available, you can synthesize fossil fuels from carbon that's already in the carbon cycle.

How much energy will that take? We can store energy in batteries at about 80% efficiency (ie electricity to chemical back to electrical/kinetic), in flywheels at around 90%, with compressed air at about 75%, with pumped hydro at about 70% and with hydrogen at around 50%. 'With enough energy available' we can be just like Star Trek, getting to a post energy scarcity world will be quite a good trick, its not a trick we can afford to wait for.
posted by biffa at 1:47 AM on November 29, 2011


well, it's like hawking says. we must leave the planet. if we don't, we're toast, and probably by our own hands. vote hawking for President of Earth.

you know that movie Prince of Space? (which, ironically, mentions thorium bombs...) There's a part where the captured scientists explain to the avian villain that they can't take responsibility for political decision-making. and the villain's all "I can't fathom a society where men of your intelligence are not allowed to guide the destinies of your people."

sigh. where have you gone, Krankor, a planet turns its desperate eyes to you.
posted by fetamelter at 5:48 AM on November 29, 2011


50 years ago it was 1961. Around that time, 50 years in the future we were going to have computers weighing less than a ton fitting in a single room, and cars that fly.

So I guess your point is that we don't know which technologies will go faster than we expect and which will go slower. But if you look at that list of dates for significant developments in the life of the ITER, and when you consider that there are only about two dozen tokamaks in the world it is difficult to see any real possibility for fusion moving much faster to economic viability than a few decades, though longer is distinctly possible.
posted by biffa at 5:48 AM on November 29, 2011


which would generate immense quantities of saline waste

Limitless energy allows you to breakdown much of our existing waste into component elements for the ultimate in recycling. Imagine what could be recovered from garbage dumps if you had an element filter. However, I think salt is probably quite a bit more useful than sodium and chlorine on their own.
posted by pashdown at 6:24 AM on November 29, 2011


Imagine what could be recovered from garbage dumps if you had an element filter.

I was at a presentation last week about the potential for bunging some microbes in with electrical waste and having them soak up all the lovely rare elements for reuse.
posted by biffa at 8:46 AM on November 29, 2011


If limitless energy would let you easily extract any elements from any source containing them that again makes it seem to me that it would make us even less careful - why be all meticulous and anal about processing waste in one place and transporting and storing it to somewhere and waiting for it to be needed if you're probably going to be able to extract it from nearby trash when and where you need it at that time.

I'd like to imagine that we'd be all responsible and Yankee thrifty in a future like that but it seems kinda unlikely that will be the reality. Besides, who would need salt and sodium or chlorine in the quantities that would be produced in while providing, say, Dhaka or Lagos with fresh water, especially when every other city in the world is doing the same thing and we're all probably busy with projects like turning the Sahara into farmland.
posted by XMLicious at 10:30 AM on November 29, 2011


could power the world forever*

*Perpetuality requires Golden Apples of Idunn. Warranty void if Mjolnir refractured.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:16 PM on November 29, 2011


XMLicious wrote: Besides, who would need salt and sodium or chlorine in the quantities that would be produced in while providing, say, Dhaka or Lagos with fresh water, especially when every other city in the world is doing the same thing and we're all probably busy with projects like turning the Sahara into farmland.

We can always bury it in salt mines.
posted by wierdo at 7:22 PM on November 29, 2011


wierdo writes "We can always bury it in salt mines."

And restore The Bonneville Salt Flats.
posted by Mitheral at 9:12 PM on November 29, 2011


As I mentioned in the previous thread, the Germans built a thorium reactor in the 1980s that cost billions. They ended up shutting it down because it was too expensive to run. The government spent hundreds of millions to bail out the company running it.
posted by eye of newt at 12:14 AM on November 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


yes, and the THTR300 was of a different reactor design. that was a pebble-bed reactor, and the type being discussed here is the liquid flouride breeder reactor.
posted by ninjew at 9:08 AM on November 30, 2011


Bill Gates's TerraPower To Help China Build Traveling Wave Nuclear Reactor (via, TED previously)
posted by jeffburdges at 1:04 PM on December 8, 2011


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