Super Fuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future

With my companions—John Kutsch, the owner of an engineering design firm in Chicago; Bruce Patton, a scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 30 miles or so up the road; and Kirk Sorensen, an engineer at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama—I clambered over a dilapidated chain-link fence and walked down the dirt road that followed the meandering river. It was the first really steamy day of summer. The woods were loud with crickets and desultory birdsong, and a double-crested cormorant launched itself off the surface of the sluggish river. We were trespassing on federal property, but it seemed unlikely that anyone would care. We passed the foundation of an old guard shack covered in foliage. It was like the setting for a postapocalyptic movie, except we weren’t being pursued by zombies.

After a mile or so we came to a wide clearing on the inner curve of a horseshoe bend in the river. Obviously manmade, it was empty save for grass and gravel and a few arborvitae trees. Nothing stirred.

“Eight billion dollars,” said Sorensen. “That’s what you’re looking at.”

What we were looking at was the abandoned site of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor. Planned in the 1960s, Clinch River was originally conceived as the prototype of a new class of futuristic nuclear reactors that would create more fuel than they consumed. The project officially began in 1970 and finally was abandoned in 1983, after innumerable studies, reports, and rhetoric, plus the eight billion Sorensen mentioned. Once advertised as the future of power generation in the United States, Clinch River is now synonymous with technological hubris and the failed promise of atomic power. We were standing in the graveyard of the U.S. nuclear power industry.

As we ambled back toward our cars, Sorensen—who at that time was studying for a master’s in nuclear engineering at the University of Tennessee—talked about the folly of U.S. nuclear policy and about the little-known element that could transform it.

“Thorium was the alternate path,” he said. “It’s a safer, more abundant fuel that could’ve revolutionized nuclear power. The problem is, it has almost nothing in common with what we’re doing now.”

So starts the award-winning journalist Richard Martin’s book on the Super Fuel: Thorium.

“Richard Martin tells a story that needs to be understood, for our future energy supplies rely upon hard choices. Martin makes at least one of those difficult decisions ever so much easier by educating us on our troubled history and experience with nuclear energy, and even more importantly for the future development of this essential source of 21st Century clean energy. This is the type of book that can make a difference!”
                                             Former President, Shell Oil Company
                                             Author, Why We Hate the Oil Companies

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