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Stealing Fire Redux

Could thorium make nuclear power safe? - The Week  caught my eye because thorium was one of the materials David HahnThe Radioactive Boy Scout, scavenged to use in his breeder reactor experiments.

Knowing something of David's story makes the article's concluding paragraph puzzling.
"First, it will take a lot of money to develop a new generation of thorium-fueled reactors — America's has been dormant for half a century. China is taking the lead in picking up the thread, building on plans developed and abandoned in Europe. And part of the reason Europe dropped the research, according to critics, is pressure from France's uranium-based nuclear power industry. Others just think the whole idea is being oversold. If "an endless, too-cheap-to-meter source of clean, benign, what-could-possibly-go-wrong energy" sounds too good to be true, says nuclear analyst Norm Rubin, it's because it is."
So it will take a lot of money and yet a 17-year old Eagle Scout was able to scavenge enough to begin a breeding process that turned his mother's property into a Superfund site.
David's story enthralled me from the first time I heard it. There are so many elements to it. And now this. It makes me wonder if David's true 'crime' may have been the same as Prometheus'.

Originally posted > Stealing Fire Redux

It's a lot easier to create nuclear radiation than a controlled nuclear reaction that produces more useful energy than is put into it (especially when one is concerned with not creating a Superfund site). That's why we still don't have any (commercial) fusion reactors (which would be far superior to thorium reactors) more than 50 years after the first H-bomb. (The hydrogen bomb was a fusion-based bomb–albeit with a fission-based detonator, whereas the A-bomb was fission-based.)

Are you familiar with David Hahn's story?


Only tangentially. I wasn't trying to argue the specifics, but to provide a general rule. I'll be happy to get into the specifics when I have some time.

It is well worth reading as a human interest story but the science aspects are interesting as well.

I never heard of this.

I recall that movie in the 80's where the kid made an atomic bomb.

This story is going to make a fine movie script some day for sure.

I think I first read the general story in Reader's Digest but it intrigued me enough to look for more.

How cheap would it be?
If a town of 1,000 bought a 1-megawatt thorium reactor for $250,000, using 20 kilograms of thorium a year with almost no oversight, every family could pay as little as $0.40 a year for all their electricity, Anissimov predicts. And small reactors like that aren't just potentially cost-effective, he says; they're much safer, too.

THAT is the reason and the ONLY reason. It would essentially put a whole swath of the energy robber barons out of business.

This is the main reason why in other areas, such as transportation and food production, cheap and efficient measures are not taken.

Yes, stealing how to make fire from the powers that be and sharing the know-how with humanity is why Prometheus was punished.

I don't buy into the cheap conspiracy theory explanations. No matter how cheap it is, it'd require government approval, and so there'd always be a way to charge far more than it costs. It'd be easy for big energy to make a profit on cheap thorium (making it less cheap, but still cheaper than alternatives).

Note: I'm not going against all conspiracy theories here, I'm just saying that there are many easier conspiracies to involve than the cheap one–e.g., one requiring government approval.

This news article was likely planted by thorium nuclear advocates and so spins the positives while ignoring the negatives but that does not mean that perverse market incentives are not arresting our development of better systems and technoologies.  

I agree that there are perverse market incentives throughout the energy sector (and beyond). I just think that if thorium were as cheap as some might think, those perverse market incentives would be insufficient to halt its use. (Which is to say, I think we're in agreement.)

Those that say it can't be done should never interrupt the one who is doing it.

Just to be clear: I'm not against researching it, and can even imagine it would be cheaper than Uranium (in fact, I suspect it is), I'm just saying it ain't pennies on the dollar. By the way, an excellent source of radioactive thorium is from the atmosphere immediately surrounding a coal plant:

Since I just love throwing a bit of history into any argument, remember this. Vacuum tubes were horribly expensive to produce initially with the give technology. Not long after they were being plopped out like gum drops. The transistor was horribly expensive to produce initially but the Japanese figured out how to do it and they were being plopped out like gum drops. The automobile was horribly expensive to produce initially but Ford figured out how to plop them out like gum drops.

All new technology is expensive initially but then somebody figures out how to turn them out like gum drops.

And the latest is computers. Now the damn things are everywhere.

You are correct about the Government Regulations part. 

Hearing Aids. A subject with which I am intimately familiar with - are outrageously expensive. Even though the technology is now dirt cheap. The same DSP technology that is used in your iPods and cell phones.  Why ? Because the industry in collusion with the FDA conspires to keep it expensive, that's why.

I have to admit that I was not aware of this either. Thank you muchly. I have bookemarked all the links and saved some of the text for later investigation.

Once I subscribed to a press release service and noticed how many news reportis were cut and pasted from them.  Marketing, PR and Advocacy people are major, major 'news' generators which is why I try hard to look for the other side.  

I really wish there were more Joe Friday journalism easier to find.  Once again perverse market incentives come into play.  Media needs filler and press releases provide more of that cheaper than reporters on staff.


This is so cool....hope it is more fact than fantasy.

Of course, real leaves break down carbon dioxide as part of its photosynthesis.   Do you know if the artificial leaf can do that as well?  The article did not say.

Reading between the lines (i.e., purely guessing), I think it does not effect carbon dioxide levels, but is merely separating H20 into two parts H2 to one part O2.

Natural leaves separate the carbon dioxide into carbohydrates and oxygen, and I doubt that these artificial leaves grow carbs.

Carbs no but some other way of sequestering the carbon might be useful, say charcoal or graphite.

AIUI, CO2 is very stable, so breaking it down to component atoms isn't all that simple.

The information on thorium is fascinating; I hadn't heard about it as a potentially safer nuclear fuel.

The "artificial leaf" story raises a lot more questions. First, it doesn't really "mimic" photosynthesis, just a very small part of that process. So it bugs me that that's how it's being pitched.

Supposedly, the leaf is 10 times more efficient than natural leaves, presumably at capturing the energy of sunlight. I believe a good solar cell can match that, and do so for decades on end. The artificial leaf hasn't run beyond 45 hours. The problems it runs into at that point aren't explained.

Solar cells produce electricity that can be used immediately, fed into a power grid, and/or stored in something as simple as a battery; the leaf simply generates hydrogen and oxygen, which then have to be captured and processed (run through a fuel cell) to produce usable power. Every step decreases efficiency and increases hardware costs.

The vague reference to the relative cheapness of the raw materials, chemicals and electronics to manufacture the leaves is also unimpressive. Just as with solar panels, the current monetary cost should be of less concern than the total energy costs. If a complete system produces (captures) less energy than it takes to make, transport and install it, it's not part of the solution. Since the leaf is just another way to capture solar power, it has to compete against increasingly simple, cheap and efficient solar panels. It has a long way to catch up.

I don't mean to totally dismiss research on "artificial leaf" technology. The Indian pilot project sounds fine as an experiment. But it's miles away from  the "commercialization" that the article foresees occurring "soon." The image of a single leaf in a gallon of water powering each Third World home, for example, is palpable nonsense. 

Buzzkill. I'm not saying you're wrong, but sheesh. Next thing you know, you're going to tell me that there won't be a manned mission to Mars by the mid-2030s.*

*Don't. You. Dare.

Sorry. My last paragraph is the whole point I was making. This is interesting, perhaps very promising research. But it's still basic research, not a working energy-producing system. Nocera's no quack, and MIT has a decent reputation too, but the article grossly overhypes where this project stands. The research hasn't even been published yet.

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