On June 27, 1954, the world saw the first nuclear power plant come online in Obninsk in the former Soviet Union. Twenty-two years later, in the fall of 1976, I walked through Three Mile Island's Unit 2 (TMI-2) reactor building and cooling towers in Middletown, Pennsylvania. I stood on the concrete floors in the middle of the structure that would contain those infamous fuel rods. I walked inside its massive cooling towers, watching birds fly in spirals ever upward to escape those hyperbolic prisons.
As incredible as the walk through this awe-inspiring construction site was, our small group of wide-eyed physics majors from Dickinson College's class of '79 didn't realize we were also walking through history.
Declared operational on December 30, 1978, TMI-2 ran for only three months before its partial meltdown on March 28, 1979. I lived in southeastern Pennsylvania then, and can attest to the widespread panic. Panic fueled by not knowing if the a radioactive cloud from the crippled reactor core and growing hydrogen bubble were going to lay waste to thousands of square miles of surrounding communities and farmland. Fortunately, we were spared that catastrophe. But we weren't spared the toll. The construction and cleanup costs for those three months of operation? Nearly $2 billion. And the root cause of this financial disaster and near ecological holocaust? The fuel choice.
Obninsk and TMI-2 were powered, like all nuclear power plants today, by Uranium. That's not a particularly odd fact until you consider that Thorium has always been known to be a much better choice on many counts. It is more abundant, produces less energetic radioactive waste, generates more energy per ton, and is much safer to use since it operates at low pressure and can't run away in an uncontrolled fission reaction on its own. In other words, no meltdowns. With all these benefits, why has Uranium elbowed out Thorium for six decades as the worldwide fuel of choice for nuclear power generation? Despite numerous partial meltdowns in Uranium fueled reactors, TMI-2 among them, and the disastrous meltdown at Chernobyl, why has Uranium been the historical fuel of choice?
Hold that thought.
I have always had a fascination with why some ideas catch on and others don't. And even more so with those that initially fail, then resurface later to spread and become widely adopted. The failure of someone's dream to take hold can easily be dismissed as being ahead of its time, but there's often something more at play. Something about the "thought world" that surrounds its adoption.
So why did Uranium muscle out Thorium? In a word, weapons.
Unlike Uranium, Thorium reactors do not produce Plutonium, a key ingredient for the production of nuclear bombs. Sixty years of nuclear power generation using Uranium fuel can be traced back to 1942 and the Manhattan project. The need for Plutonium to make nuclear bombs trumped any reactor fuel that wouldn't produce it. The choice for reactor fuel has been submerged in this thinking for six decades. If Thorium were software, its inability to produce Plutonium would have been considered a "bug" with no workaround. So it was abandoned. And not only abandoned, annihilated. In 1973, Richard Nixon killed off the only hope for its development in the U.S. by firing Alvin Weinberg, Director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Weinberg was spearheading development of a Thorium-fuel-based molten-salt reactor.
Now for the twist. Thorium's inability to produce Plutonium is no longer a bug. It's a feature. And a key feature at that. A feature allowing the U.S. to collaborate with China in the development of, you guessed it, a Thorium-fuel-based molten-salt reactor. Baby boomers, in particular, will appreciate the mind-blowing nature of this twist. This shift. Lacking the funding and political will to do this at home, the U.S. Department of Energy signed a formal agreement with China in 2011 to help them develop this technology and build two reactors through the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics. Reactors that will generate only power. No weapons fuel. And no CO2 emissions.
The need for more power worldwide is long-standing. But it was never sufficient to catalyze the change required to advance this technology. The physics hasn't changed, but the matrix of thought that contains its application has. Thoughts surrounding the threat of nuclear war. Thoughts surrounding the threat of carbon emissions. The list is long. It has taken over half a century to evolve, but the thought environment, the global "thought world," finally exists for governments and entrepreneurs to move this forward.
There's an advantage to being around long enough to have watched this energy issue unfold end-to-end. It yields perspective. And hope. Hope for other massive challenges we are facing now. Hope that something will rise above our differences to catalyze a global shift to end the insane violence that has gripped our world. Not through the annihilation of the people committing it. But through annihilation of the thought world that perpetuates it. Because as long as this environment, this thought world exists, people will live in it.
Life on Earth, life as we know it, is finite. At the scale of geologic time, even if we dodge the bullets of a man-induced global nuclear or climate disaster, there is no escaping global catastrophe by natural means. And from a cosmological perspective, global catastrophe from space is inevitable. Both types of events have happened to varying degrees many times in Earth's history. A hundred tons of space dust and rocks are estimated to impact Earth every day. The ten largest asteroids known to have hit our planet with devastating global impact have craters ranging from 50 to nearly 200 miles in diameter. Just one month ago, a previously undetected asteroid, nearly the size of a football field, surprised astronomers and brushed by the Earth, five times closer than our moon. And if that doesn't get your attention, stretch that time scale even further. If a massive asteroid doesn't obliterate us, the death of our beloved sun, our closest star, will. Every star dies, and ours will take us with it as it morphs into a red giant.
The insanity of our violence against one another is exceeded only by our choice to live this way on a planet that is clearly a gift with an expiration date. It's like choosing to stay in a sword fight on a sinking ship. What's the point? The victor gets to drink the last bottle of champagne on deck before settling with it on the ocean floor?
Bug or feature? It's all how you think. Bug or feature? Is all how we think. Collectively. So polish up those imaginations and get to work. Thorium's a start. Now let's seriously shift our thought world to a peaceful one and set a course of our choosing before it's too late. Before nature, the cosmos, or our own careless acts take a course that sinks our ship without our ever having stood together, shoulder to shoulder, to lovingly toast even one glorious sunrise.
This post was inspired by a snippet of a "Science Friday" broadcast I heard on December 11, 2015. The reference to Thorium as, paraphrasing, "bug then feature," was made by a guest I could neither recall nor identify later. I'd give you credit if I could, and I doubt you'll find this post, but I thank you anyway. Those words inspired the topic, and the broadcast motivated me (nerd alert!) to research the very interesting history of molten-salt reactors.