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67 of 73 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars More heat than light; doesn't do justice to the subject, June 25, 2012
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This review is from: SuperFuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future (MacSci) (Hardcover)
I looked forward to SuperFuel as an accessible exploration of molten salt breeder reactor technology and history, a comparison-and-contrast between the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) and conventional reactors, a survey of current and past attempts at using thorium in power plants, a summary of the thorium/uranium fuel cycle, and an assessment of the barriers to adoption of LFTR and recommendations for action and change. Unfortunately, the book itself mirrors the history of its subject: SuperFuel has a very promising start, abruptly transitions to an extended disappointing and unproductive era until rediscovering its value at the end. Does it succeed or fail? The answer is complex.

SuperFuel is essentially an extended work of advocacy journalism, and suffers from many of the problems common to that genre - oversimplification, excessive hyperbole, demonization of the status quo and one's perceived opponents, and selective inclusion and omission of evidence to suit the author's preordained conclusion. These are all forgivable sins to some degree but in SuperFuel Martin has taken what could have been a compelling tale of an exciting technology rediscovered and an inspiring manifesto for energy independence into an intensely negative, repetitive, and error-filled rant against uranium, conventional reactors, and anyone associated with them.

The book is fraught with numerous technical and historical errors which calls into question how much of the technology and history Martin actually understands, thereby rendering much of what he presents as fact suspect. Entirely too much of the book is dedicated to a putative feud between Adm. Rickover and Alvin Weinberg. It would have been helpful to see matters from Rickover's perspective as the architect of the nuclear navy rather than as the cardboard villain Martin presents. Ham-fisted and inaccurate characterization is not only directed at personalities such as Rickover. Martin saves more than enough ire for the current generation of nuclear technologists, managers, and regulators and dishes it out liberally. Some criticism is warranted but again, there's little room in the narrative for nuance, historical perspective, or complexity. More thoughtful consideration could illuminate; we get more dim cardboard villains instead.

Possibly more significant are errors of omission. SuperFuel repeatedly claims the LFTR concept is more economical than conventional reactors for its projected modularity and simplicity of construction, barely admitting that this advantage is shared with small modular reactors (SMRs) of conventional design. The complexity of current reactors is damned for "requir[ing] a complicated network of pipes, valves, and other plumbing that can fail, corrode, or fall prey to operator error." though it is hard to see how this exact criticism is not just as applicable to LFTR with its corrosive fuel salt and its (conveniently unspecified) radiochemical processing plant which relies on incredibly toxic hydrofluoric acid (HF) which is so strong it can dissolve glass. The most significant omission is that of the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) project since IFR addressed many of the same problems as LFTR is intended to solve but has the advantage of being demonstrated in the past two decades, and like Weinberg's Molten Salt Reactor Experiment, was canceled after very successful operation. It's clear Martin knew of IFR since he mentions the project's cancellation, though not by name. Taken in total, it's difficult to see these as mere oversights since mention of any of them might challenge the notion that LFTR is the One True Way to clean, sustainable, abundant power.

Martin also has a tendency to make and repeat bold assertions without evidence. Many of his arguments about LFTR's safety and economics hinge on comparing operating power plants against what effectively amounts to "vaporware" which is hardly fair or useful. Is LFTR really safer than a conventional LWR? We can only guess; in some areas yes, in some areas no, in most areas we won't know until we can analyze a completed LFTR design submitted for NRC certification. If history is any guide, most problems won't be found until we build ten and run them for a decade. Either way, bold and definitive claims of safety are premature.

I found myself asking "Really?" after each of Martin's baseless assertions with increasing frequency until I just wanted to give up. This is especially unfortunate since Martin's writing begins to shine near the end when he stops foaming and gets around to making concrete, positive recommendations. Most of his recommendations are sensible and pragmatic; it's a pity it takes so much work to get to them.

Rather than getting a clear picture of the strengths and weaknesses of LFTR and a fair comparison with competing technologies, we get hand-waving, well-poisoning, and cherry-picking. LFTR and thorium hold great promise but the intense bias in SuperFuel clouds the issue and actively alienates anyone not already convinced of LFTR's superiority, especially those in a position to do more than provide venture capital or agitate on-line. The flaw here is not with LFTR and the thorium-uranium fuel cycle, it's trusting Martin to act as an effective advocate.

In short, SuperFuel is for true-believers and evangelistas with a tolerance for convenient error and intolerance for dissent, the sort of people who believe those who disagree with them can only be stupid or evil. If you're not already convinced that LFTR is the end-all-be-all power source, SuperFuel has too many obvious rhetorical and technical flaws to sway you; if you're already convinced, SuperFuel will under the best circumstances make you cringe, under the worst, provide you with enough weak talking points and errors to make you insufferable. Or perhaps more insufferable.
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Showing 1-7 of 7 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 8, 2012 5:45:43 PM PDT
I am a great advocate of LFTR, but your review is superb. Advocates always portray the things they champion in black and white. I will read this book with your caveat in mind.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 29, 2012 9:20:38 PM PDT
Again, I'm a big fan of LFTR but as someone who has actually worked at a nuclear plant and currently works on safety analysis of nuclear facilities, I had to call out problems with this book.

Posted on Sep 2, 2012 5:54:06 PM PDT
Fellow says:
Thanks for the review. Will you please recommend another work that is more balanced and includes other promising technologies?

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 8, 2012 2:11:41 PM PDT
S. Duval says:
Plentiful Energy: The Story of the Integral Fast Reactor: The complex history of a simple reactor technology, with emphasis on its scientific bases for non-specialists

Plentiful Energy: The Story of the Integral Fast Reactor: The complex history of a simple reactor technology, with emphasis on its scientific bases for non-specialists

Posted on Dec 6, 2012 4:23:37 AM PST
If you are interested in more technical information with numbers backing up assertions, please visit THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal. THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2013 2:15:40 PM PST
I wish Martin had taken the best of your book and the best of his book and left all his vitriol on the cutting room floor. Your review will be coming soon enough... :D

Posted on Dec 31, 2013 2:01:32 PM PST
Excellent review. This book is written as a persuasive essay format that is frustrating to read. It is not written objectively and quashes all other energy alternatives by either making unfounded claims or not properly disclosing all the information. I would only recommend this book to an informed reader.
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