Chapter Four: The Thorium Backbone

"In the years since man unlocked the power stored within the atom, the world has made progress, halting, but effective, toward bringing that power under human control. The challenge may be our salvation. As we begin to master the destructive potentialities of modern science, we move toward a new era in which science can fulfill its creative promise and help bring into existence the happiest society the world has ever known."
- John F. Kennedy

Using integrated renewables to transform cities into power-generating centers is key to Universal Energy because it helps reduce and eventually remove the demand municipalities place on regional electric grids. As urban regions eventually become net energy producers, we can generate more than they consume, which helps contribute to a nationwide abundance of inexpensive energy that can be devoted to the indefinite production of critical resources. The next step in the framework is to increase our base load power infrastructure, and scale a national energy abundance, to a dramatically higher tier.

“Base load” refers to the minimum amount of power that needs to be generated for a given region over time.[1] Today, this is met through larger “base load” power stations that are supplemented by smaller plants that engage when demand spikes. As base load stations are designed to be constantly operational and generate a lot of electricity, they are more expensive to construct and maintain, which encourages the use of cheaper fuels to power them.

Accordingly, most of our base load infrastructure is presently powered by fossil fuels (coal and natural gas), followed by enriched uranium and hydroelectric.[2] While far superior to environmentally toxic coal, hydroelectric and natural gas present their own ecological drawbacks.[3] Hydroelectric can only be deployed in limited locations, and enriched uranium is both limited in quantity and primarily deployed in reactor designs that present concerns of both weaponization and risks of catastrophic failure. To make matters worse, the majority of our base load infrastructure is decades old.[4] More than half of our base load power infrastructure was built before 1980, and 75% of our coal-fueled power plants are at least thirty years old with an average expected lifespan of forty years.[5]

Universal Energy seeks to solve these problems by replacing our base load infrastructure with next-generation technology that’s designed to work alongside other power systems intelligently, employing the same concepts of standardization and modularity that’s applied to integrated renewables. The technology it looks to for this role is a clean, safe and highly efficient form of atomic energy that comes from the element thorium – not enriched uranium – to provide an immense source of base load power for our national energy grids.

In saying this, it’s important to mention that nuclear power can be a polarizing subject – and for good reason. Atomic energy can be dangerous. It can make weapons of mass destruction, cause regionally-devastating meltdowns and produce toxic waste that lasts for millennia. Risks aside, certain types of nuclear power can also be incredibly expensive, leading many to doubt its long-term economic viability. For these reasons, nuclear has become politically controversial in much of the world, especially within the United States.

Yet while many of these concerns are conceptually valid, nearly every single one centers on the consequences of nuclear reactors that run on a combination of enriched uranium and pressurized water. And the reason most reactors have worked this way in the past is because atomic energy as we know it was born from initiatives designed to produce both nuclear weapons and civilian power as directed from national leadership during the Cold War. Consequently, there are few ways to decouple “traditional” nuclear reactors from nuclear weapons development. Any attempt to do so with certainty quickly reaches into the billions of dollars, to say nothing of the ecological risks and their accompanying expenses.

But thorium is not “traditional” nuclear. Reactors fueled by thorium don’t use water and aren’t pressurized – the main issue behind reactor “meltdowns.” Thorium reactors don’t use solid fuel, either – the entire reactor core is liquid. It’s physically impossible for one to “melt down” like their pressurized-water counterparts and they can’t wreak serious environmental havoc if sabotaged. Thorium reactors can consume both nuclear waste and weapons-grade nuclear material as fuel, but at the same time are difficult to use to build nuclear weapons. Their waste has a minimal environmental footprint as well, and that waste becomes safe over decades as opposed to millennia.

Thorium reactors further fit the requirements of Universal Energy. They operate at high temperature and offer plenty of excess energy for supplemental resource production. They can be built to a single standard, small in size and modular in function that can be mass produced and deployed anywhere in the world. The designs being proposed already include the cogenerative features that Universal Energy seeks for a dynamic energy framework. As we’ll see later in this chapter, the technology has been proven to work impressively and has further seen financial investments well into the billions from seven countries (as of this writing) – including the United States.[7]

But in advocating their benefits, it’s important to also note that thorium reactors have their criticisms. Some come from people simply opposed to nuclear power as a concept, favoring exclusive use of renewables. Others come from nuclear engineers, cautioning against discarding traditional reactor designs that, while riskier, have seen the lion’s share of research and development with regards to atomic energy. Others still come from people who doubt the viability of a science that – to be fair – has a contingent of enthusiastic backers who at times oversell thorium’s benefits without recognizing the challenges, however solvable, to deploying the technology on a large scale.

These criticisms are taken seriously by this writing and will be addressed directly in this chapter, situated fairly and factually within the context of the resource, climate and energy challenges humanity will be facing in the future. This discussion will also draw a noteworthy distinction between renewables and thorium, and directly address why we even need both in the first place.

Good point. Renewables Are Awesome. So Why Do We Need Thorium?

As a framework, Universal Energy functions on the recognition that until we develop true fusion energy[8] there will be no one singular technology that is capable of meeting humanity’s energy and resource requirements. Renewables are essential to city-level energy reduction and eventual independence, all the more so as their integration increases in scale. But by themselves, renewables fall far short of the threshold needed to reliably meet the demands of base load power nationwide, which itself is a far lower bar than the levels of energy we require to solve resource scarcity and climate change.

Further, even if renewables could generate enough energy to solve these problems, the carbon emissions behind their base material extraction, manufacture, transport and installation at sufficient scale would undermine the endeavor from the start. Solar and wind power, as we’ll review later in this chapter, requires lots of raw materials to construct – between 10,000-17,000 metric tons to generate a single terawatt.[9] That says nothing of transmission or storage – nor the energy needed to source, process and integrate materials for those functions. It also says nothing of the considerable difficulties presented by their end-state disposal.

That’s not a problem if the energy used in every step the renewable manufacturing chain is carbon-neutral, but only clean nuclear is capable of generating that level of carbon-free energy as a modular standard. Further, only clean nuclear is capable of generating enough carbon-free energy to power auxiliary functions of synthetic resource production. To see why this is the case, let’s compare nuclear and solar at scale:

One of the largest solar power stations in the world is the Topaz Solar Farm in southern California. At a cost of $2.5 billion and spanning 7.3 square miles, the Topaz Solar Farm deploys nine million solar modules to generate an aggregate of 1,270 gigawatt-hours annually.[10] That’s certainly impressive. But it’s dwarfed when compared to the generating capacity of base load nuclear.

The Limerick nuclear power plant in southeast Pennsylvania, for comparison, has a generating capacity of 2,270 megawatts and annually outputs 19,000 gigawatt-hours.[11] That plant is barely half the size of the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona, which has a generating capacity of 3,942 megawatts and annually outputs 32,840 gigawatt-hours of energy.[12]

Even as one of the largest solar power stations in existence – located in one of the most solar-effective areas on the planet – the Topaz Solar Farm generates less than 5% of the output of a large base load nuclear power station.

Across a city – or many of them – that capacity definitely matters. Renewables serve the purpose of rapid installation, flexibility of deployment and integration within municipal infrastructure, uniquely suiting them for supplementing national energy generation and reducing regional energy demand – all the more so once integrated into the National Aqueduct. But it would take thousands of square miles at a cost of many trillions of dollars to meet our energy demands in full through renewables alone,[13] a threshold that modern nuclear reactors can meet at a fraction of the physical, material and economic footprint.

That’s where thorium comes in.

Like renewables, thorium’s role in the framework is to provide a nigh-unlimited source of clean electricity. Yet thorium can do so at a degree and to a density that presents an unrivaled capability to not only exceed our current base load infrastructure, but also present such an abundance of energy that it causes the price of electricity to plummet. Most critically, thorium is capable of this while also generating enough residual heat energy to power inexpensive resource production.

That’s the essential capability that only clean nuclear can meet on the scale we need to solve resource scarcity and climate change. We’ll devote the rest of this chapter to see how thorium reactors can serve as a vital component of Universal Energy, bridging the divide between nuclear and renewables while expanding our energy production capabilities and transforming our resource supply chain.
XKCD thorium

In doing so, we’ll be focusing on five key points:

  • A brief overview of thorium and nuclear power.
  • Why we don’t use thorium today.
  • How thorium works differently than “traditional” nuclear.
  • How we know thorium reactors are a feasible and economical source of power.
  • Why criticisms of thorium are wrong on the facts