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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Superfuel’

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SUPERFUEL: THORIUM, THE GREEN ENERGY SOURCE FOR THE FUTURE
By Richard Martin
Palgrave Macmillan, $27, 272 pages

A scant eight miles west-southwest of where I have taught numerous atmospheric science courses at the Beaver County campus of Penn State University, along the Ohio River in Shippingport, Pa., sits the first commercial nuclear power plant in the United States. In 1957, the Duquesne Light Co.’s atomic power station in Shippingport “went critical” and generated energy for 25 years. Another distinction for the plant, as Richard Martin writes in “SuperFuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future,” Shippingport is “still the only commercial reactor to operate over a long period of time on thorium fuel.” A nuclear plant is operating today in Shippingport, using uranium, not thorium, as its power source.

With the success and longtime theoretical and practical understanding of thorium as an overall superior energy source to uranium, why are we saddled with the many dangers associated with uranium-powered nuclear plants? This is a question more than adequately answered in “SuperFuel.”

Besides briefly covering everything technical you need to know about the 90th element on the periodic table, “SuperFuel” provides engaging detail on the history and likely future of using thorium as a comparatively safe and substantially beneficial nuclear fuel.

Advantages of thorium over uranium reactors include: Thorium is more abundant in nature, it is more readily refined and processed, it is inherently safer overall, it gives up more of its energy in a reactor so power operations can be much more efficient, it can produce (breed) more fuel than it starts with, and, especially important, processed thorium is not as good for making nuclear weapons as uranium.

Furthermore, a popular, well-researched and designed “liquid fluoride thorium reactor,” or LFTR, would operate at atmospheric pressure, meaning that “the extremely thick-walled, pressurized vessels used in conventional reactors, which have an unfortunate tendency to blow their top, are unnecessary.” Also, LFTRs would yield a long-lived radioactivity of waste that is only “one ten-thousandth that of a conventional reactor.”

With these significant advantages (and more) why has uranium been used exclusively for nuclear-power generation in recent decades? Strong proponents for uranium for bomb-making along with submarine propulsion in the military had much to do with uranium’s early success. In addition, Mr. Martin largely blames today’s “nuclearati” (his word), who champion the idea that we can’t use thorium because we’ve never done it before. Let’s stick with what works, they say, ignoring vast thorium research and development and real-world experience.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle those who champion thorium need to overcome is public perception of nuclear power, especially after Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear accident following the tsunami in March 2011.

But, despite this enormous community-relations challenge, an emerging thorium revolution is in progress - just not in America. Countries including China, India, Brazil, Norway, France, the Czech Republic and even Japan are leading the way. It is certainly not too late for the United States to be the leader in a powerful technology that originated here. We have the talent and drive to make a cleaner, safer, more-efficient power source happen.

The author makes a solid, convincing case for thorium as a superfuel, not simply to replace uranium, but to reduce the use of much dirtier fuels such as coal. Although he frequently cites anthropogenic climate change as a major reason for fossil-fuel replacement, which I cannot agree with, he also notes the harmful health effects of and even high radiation associated with coal burning, with which I can agree.

With readable presentations like “SuperFuel,” the path to a better energy future just got a little easier. After all, I have to admit that in my Penn State Beaver campus lectures on energy, I have neglected the terrific advantages of thorium as a nuclear fuel. But, henceforth, this book has convinced me to be negligent no longer.

Anthony J. Sadar is a meteorologist who specializes in air-quality issues. His new book, “In Global Warming We Trust: A Heretic’s Guide to Climate Science” (Telescope Books) will be released this summer.

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