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Nuclear Innovation: Cool Again, for the First Time in 30 Years

About a month ago, I mentioned Esquire's coverage of a nuclear reactor design called PRISM, for an efficient, modular nuke that could potentially be mass-produced. It seemed like Esquire had taken extra effort to sugar-coat and glorify PRISM, repeatedly presenting it as a world-saving technology.

Thumbing through my December copy of Wired, I've found another piece that could be the twin of the Esquire article. Uranium Is So Last Century -- Enter Thorium, the New Green Nuke, blares the headline at the top.

In terms of the ongoing search for low-emission technologies, it's not particularly remarkable that nuclear power should get face-time in the popular media. But such admiring attention certainly wasn't being lavished on nuclear tech a few years ago -- solar power was getting almost all the press.

Here's a bit of what Wired had to say about thorium:

After it has been used as fuel for power plants, the element leaves behind minuscule amounts of waste. And that waste needs to be stored for only a few hundred years, not a few hundred thousand like other nuclear byproducts. Because it's so plentiful in nature, it's virtually inexhaustible. It's also one of only a few substances that acts as a thermal breeder, in theory creating enough new fuel as it breaks down to sustain a high-temperature chain reaction indefinitely. And it would be virtually impossible for the byproducts of a thorium reactor to be used by terrorists or anyone else to make nuclear weapons.

When he took over as head of Oak Ridge in 1955, Alvin Weinberg realized that thorium by itself could start to solve [uranium's] problems... "I don't know of anything more beneficial to the country, as far as environmentally sound power, than nuclear energy powered by thorium," [Utah Senator Orrin] Hatch says.

In my view, there are a few factors bringing about all the attention:
  • There is a large body of nuclear research abandoned by the U.S., resurfacing all at once
  • Renewable energy tech has matured enough that it's difficult to make exciting new claims (solar panels obviously haven't replaced coal plants yet)
  • Nuclear power is getting some funding and attention from the Obama administration
But my feeling is that there's also some indefinable shift in public attitudes about nuclear power, not to mention new (and untested) nuclear technologies. Some part of this has been quantified, of course -- back in May,Gallup found rising support for nuclear power, with a new high of 27 percent of respondents who "strongly favor" nukes.

The difference between now and other periods in which the American populace was more or less supportive of nuclear power is that there are other countries, mainly India and China, with the funding and inclination to pursue new technologies. Unless the U.S. beats its current nuclear loan program, it could still find itself left behind by progress elsewhere.

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