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SuperFuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future (MacSci) Paperback – August 20, 2013
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A riveting look at how an alternative source of energy is revoluntionising nuclear power, promising a safe and clean future for millions, and why thorium was sidelined at the height of the Cold War
In this groundbreaking account of an energy revolution in the making, award-winning science writer Richard Martin introduces us to thorium, a radioactive element and alternative nuclear fuel that is far safer, cleaner, and more abundant than uranium.
At the dawn of the Atomic Age, thorium and uranium seemed to be in close competition as the fuel of the future. Uranium, with its ability to undergo fission and produce explosive material for atomic weapons, won out over its more pacific sister element, relegating thorium to the dustbin of science.
Now, as we grapple with the perils of nuclear energy and rogue atomic weapons, and mankind confronts the specter of global climate change, thorium is re-emerging as the overlooked energy source as a small group of activists and outsiders is working, with the help of Silicon Valley investors, to build a thorium-power industry.
In the first book mainstream book to tackle these issues, Superfuel is a story of rediscovery of a long lost technology that has the power to transform the world's future, and the story of the pacifists, who were sidelined in favour of atomic weapon hawks, but who can wean us off our fossil-fuel addiction and avert the risk of nuclear meltdown for ever.
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“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 . . . [Martin] 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 . . . With readable presentations like SuperFuel, the path to a better energy future just got a little easier.” ―The Washington Times
“Makes the case that thorium, an abundant, safe element that cannot easily be turned into a weapon, should be fuelling our reactors instead of uranium…Martin is at his best when describing the human struggles of the cold-war era that spelled their…convincing.” ―New Scientist
“Traces the history of nuclear power development. . . Recommended.” ―Choice
“Richard Martin has done an exemplary job of exploring a technically demanding subject in a gripping narrative form. The implications of this subject could not be more vital -- for oil prices, energy security, the chances of coping with climate change -- and 'Superfuel' clearly and fairly spells out the reasons for both optimism and for caution. If every technical book were written in this clear and engaging a style, we'd all be a lot better informed! I am very glad to have read this book.” ―James Fallows, The Atlantic, author of China Airborne
“Bringing back to light a long-lost technology that should never have been lost, this fascinating and important biography of thorium also brings us a commodity that's rare in discussions of energy and climate change: hope.” ―Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired
“Thorium is the younger sister to uranium, less volatile, slower to self-consume, and as many have contended without success, much better suited as a source of nuclear power than uranium. Superfuel by award-winning science writer Richard Martin tells the Cinderella story of thorium in a fast-paced, insider's account. This short, well-written book is a must read for those interested in understanding thorium's past and its potential to be a clean, renewable energy source for the future.” ―Cynthia Kelly, President Atomic Heritage Foundation
“Our future energy supplies rely upon hard choices. Richard Martin educates us on our troubled history with nuclear energy, and even more importantly, how to develop this essential source of 21st century clean energy. This is the type of book that can make a difference!” ―John Hofmeister, author of Why We Hate the Oil Companies
“The story of the slightly radioactive element thorium, a much-touted alternative fuel for nuclear power plants. Abundant in the Earth's crust, thorium has been used in various industrial processes since its discovery in 1828. Advocates, writes Martin, an award-winning journalist and senior research analyst for Pike Research, a clean energy firm, say the silver-gray element has another possible use: as a cheap, safe energy source with the potential to solve our power crisis.…A lucid overview of a still-developing chapter in the story of nuclear power.” ―Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
- ASIN : 113727834X
- Publisher : St. Martin's Griffin; Reprint edition (August 20, 2013)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 272 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9781137278340
- ISBN-13 : 978-1137278340
- Item Weight : 10.3 ounces
- Dimensions : 6 x 0.62 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #732,000 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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This is not exactly a balanced book. Richard Martin is advocating for the thorium-based technology and makes no bones about it. At the same time, he does not ignore the problems of this technology (although to my taste he minimizes some of them, about which more below), and he makes a reasonable effort to be fair to competing views.
The historical chapters are illuminating. If you have wondered how we ended up burning increasing amounts of fossil fuel sixty-odd years after we were hyperbolically promised "electricity too cheap to meter", Martin will show you. The technical chapters are good considering that this is a book for the general public and more detail is available in the blogosphere. The last chapters, which discuss present business activity and future prospects, are up-to-date and present a convincing case for allocating resources to the (re)development of this technology. Success is by no means guaranteed, but at this point I would rather see a couple of billions going into LFTRs than into fusion or (heavens) into "clean" coal.
Now here are things I'm not so crazy about (but you should read the book anyway!). First off, I think Martin does not fully acknowledge the fact that thorium technology, while much "greener" than the uranium/plutonium technology, still generates a lot of fission nuclear waste. It is true that most of these radioactive isotopes are relatively short-lived and will be essentially gone in a few centuries. However, there is still the danger, in an untested design, of an uncontrolled release into the environment. Especially in a high-temperature reactor, some volatile species (xenon, iodine, volatile fluorides of tin and antimony etc.) may be released accidentally if there is a gaseous leak (the author does mention repeatedly how the gaseous Xe-135 isotope will be separated and removed). This brings me to another de-emphasized issue: potential corrosion of metals in contact with hot liquid salts, if any oxygen finds its way in. There may be good technical solutions to this but I didn't see them mentioned in this book and I sure hope the issue is not being pushed under the rug. For these and related reasons I would call LFTR "greenish" at best, not "green" as the cover would have it.
I think Martin appreciates - but I hope the various fire-breathing investors he interviewed do too - that after Fukushima there is little chance for this technology to take off without the buy-in of the environmental community and the wider public. That's why all relevant issues have to be addressed squarely and without PR legerdemain, and in any development plan the safety of the public and the workers has to be - and to be shown to be - truly "Job 1". This is why I object to two ideas that Martin seems to find appealing: (1) small stand-alone reactors, and (2) giving one man (following the model of General Groves in the Manhattan project) absolute authority over the project. The first idea will make inspection more difficult and will increase the chances that skilled personell for performing emergency operations will not be available at all times. (Banks of many modular reactors sharing a site should be OK however.) The second idea was workable in time of war, but is inconsistent with democracy and will cause deep suspicions toward the project. People who care should also watch against the established nuclear industry trying to "greenwash" themselves by sprinkling a little thorium into their conventional fuel rods.
There is much more to say about this book. It is well and persuasively written but not so well edited, and it's not hard to find factual mistakes: potassium has 3 natural isotopes, not one (p.36); most but not all materials expand when heated (p.73); the boiling point of the fluoride salts used by Weinberg must have been way above 680 degrees F (p.129); and the 1960s were obviously Weinberg's, not Weinberger's heyday (p.132). A nuclear engineer would probably have his/her own list.
So, this is not the "perfect" thorium book. But read it anyway. It is well worth a few TV-less evenings.
Super Fuel is all about energy, our choices, and how they get made. Thorium has a better "burnup" than Uranium, which means it's a more efficient fuel. So, how did this not get recognized? But it did, and the explanation for why this energy wasn't adopted is not so easy to explain.
It's not about ideology- but politics plays a big role. He goes after the left and the right in this book. For example, he says renewables just aren't good enough. That may make the left mad. Then he slams the military industrial complex, which could make the right mad. But there's plenty of blame to go around on both sides of the political divide.
Just what exactly is Thorium anyway? It is only one of many radioactive elements just like Uranium. It just so happens that some of the finest minds of the world who combined for Manhattan Project seemed to like its potential as an energy source. But, it can't be used for a bomb. With the addition of a neutron, it can be transmuted into an artificial isotope of Uranium. For that reason, it is said to be fertile- it can be bred. In this way, it works really well as a "breeder", but not the same kind of "fast-breeder" that has failed in those other designs. It's a different kind of breeder- a thermal breeder. It works best with a molten-salt liquid-core, instead of the conventional water-cooled, solid-fueled core most often seen today.
How the best minds of the world couldn't convince the government to take this route is a troubling phenomenon. It seems to come down to the nuclear arms race between the two superpowers of the time. The military needed a quick and dirty way to make submarines that could stay out at sea for very long periods. Hence, the nuclear powered submarine was born and the kind of reactor that filled the need was the water-cooled, solid-fueled type reactor. In short, this kind of reactor "got there firstest with the mostest."
The rivalry between science and the military were personified in two people-- Alvin Weinberg, the innovative scientist, and Admiral Rickover, the father of the atomic sub. The author tells much of the story through these two men. Weinberg loses out because he is seen as a malcontent, who associated with the likes of Ralph Nader. On the other hand, Rickover gave the government, and the military, what it wanted. The rest, as they say, is history.
But now we have the situation as it stands today. The nuclear sub paved the way for conventional water-cooled, solid-fueled reactors. The molten-salt reactor concept was almost lost forever, as it was forgotten about. The eminent generation of nuclear scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project eventually passed away. There was nobody left to continue their work, but notes and books of what they did some forty years before was still available.
Now there's Kirk Sorensen and others who have stepped up to the plate and are trying to redress what has gone wrong. The story is brought up to date to the present time with the present cast of innovator and dreamers.
How to go forward? Martin lays out a way. It is not impossible, but history has shown that the better mousetrap is not always the one that is the most popular at the moment. The warning given by the Thorium advocates is that the we must do it, or allow leadership in energy to pass on to others who will develop Thorium energy instead. The dreamers still believe in America. America was once a place where great things could happen. It remains to be seen if it is still that kind of country.
Top reviews from other countries
• the risk of catastrophic incidents at production sites,
• the scope for nuclear fuels to be enriched by maverick states or terrorists wanting to create nuclear weapons, and
• the need to store ever increasing quantities of highly toxic nuclear waste for centuries to come.
Recently someone asked if I'd heard of thorium and, as I hadn't, I decided to check it and started by reading this well-written and very readable book by Richard Martin.
Thorium is a radioactive element which is apparently far more abundant than uranium, lends itself to sustainable nuclear power generation, is very difficult to enrich for destructive purposes, is intrinsically safe (in Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors), and can actually use stockpiled nuclear waste as a nuclear fuel, producing far smaller quantities of less toxic waste in the process. It is also a waste product in the mining of rare earth metals.
It's become clear to me that my long-standing reservations about nuclear power were out of date and misplaced. My ideological preconceptions regarding the threats and risks of old nuclear technology had closed my mind to considering the opportunities and benefits of new nuclear technology. I would urge all long-term opponents of nuclear power to revisit the subject by reading this book and, if time permits, Nuclear 2.0 by Mark Lynas and Thorium Energy Cheaper than Coal by Robert Hargraves.
I'm now convinced that new nuclear technology has a crucial role to play in dealing with climate change. In fact, I can't see how any strategy to address climate change will stand any chance of success without it. "Old nuclear" has rightly been talked down for a long time, but "new nuclear" is something very different and needs talking up. It isn't the current nuclear model updated, it's a different model altogether - different reactors with different fuels. A safer, cleaner, sustainable model capable of generating home-produced power at a fraction of the cost by burning fossil fuels - as I understand it, so cheaply that the huge capital costs can be recovered by the investors whilst still significantly reducing energy costs for the consumer. I also understand that, with thorium, the nuclear generating process can produce hydrogen - a far more practical fuel for motor vehicles than electricity. Cheaper power, energy security, reduced carbon emissions, sustainability, safer reactors, less toxic waste, no risk of enrichment - plus a fuel source for motor transport. It ticks all the boxes.
The thorium power system has the potential to fulfil the visions of my childhood: the fuel is abundant and the LFTR reactor technology with which it is associated uses the fuel very efficiently. Any rational person has to ask why it's not the front runner in our decarbonising energy supply. I expected this book to provide a balanced overview of the technology, to explain why only visionary countries like India and China are engaging in research towards using thorium, and to provide strong suggestions of what needs to be done.
What I got for my ten pounds was basically the story of the people who have over the years been involved in thorium-232 as an energy source. this is of course very much the idiom of modern science writing, an attempt to make science and technology seem more human. But compared with, for example, David Mackay's "Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air" it's lightweight. Well written, yes, but short of the substance to construct an industry changing case.
Make no mistake, promoting thorium technology as an important decarboniser in the USA and Europe is a hard struggle against two vested interests. The opponents of any nuclear power are in one corner, though these days the number is shrinking as even the big environmental organisations see the enormity of the gaps in future energy provision solely from renewables, and the adverse environmental consequences of this path. More important is the existing uranium based nuclear power industry, strongly bolstered by the connections with weapons. It is this second story which needs muck-raking exposure, the influence and manipulation entailed in keeping uranium going. And thorium badly needs strong political and industrial champions.
This is the captivating story of radioactivity and nuclear power (from nuclear bombs to electric power generation) since WWII's Manhattan Project to the present day. It describes how and why the modern world ended up with the potentially dangerous (accidents like Chernobyl or terrorism) uranium based nuclear power generation, and advocates the development of the MUCH safer thorium fission process by western governments. Thorium fission provides the 100 year bridge between a fossil fuel economy and a nuclear fusion one (a Star Trek utopia...?) - forget wind turbines, solar power, wave power, biofuels etc. these don't have the umphf for present day energy consumption let alone the future.
The first two sections give an introduction to radioactivity science/engineering and the political/historical story. The last section although interesting is biased towards a USA political movement, but thorium fission is relevant to the whole world.
First thing, it's a good read and very well written covering quite a technical field he explains some quite complex systems in a way the lay person can understand.
Also his history lesson is telling but he doesn't labour the points in a negative way, it really was a different world back in the 50's and 60's. The Military Industrial complex was really taking hold and this drove nuclear power.
The politics shown are all too real and you get to understand how huge interests can kill a new technology, wether the USA can be changed to take a lead in this new technology remains to be seen.
Read the book, there is an alternative,but who will benefit? I have no idea.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about the subject and a possible better way ahead in generating energy.