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Customer Review

on July 29, 2012
The author, Richard Martin, writes for Wired magazine. He began writing about Thorium in 2009. The book appears to have been published in late spring of 2012. The central theme to the book could be stated as an anti-thesis of the better mousetrap bromide. He attempts to answer the frequent question-- If it so good, why aren't we doing it already? The answer is that the better mousetrap doesn't always get the crowd beating their way to your doorstep after all.

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.
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