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Friday, June 15, 2012

Review: "Super-Fuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future"

When I first received my copy of Richard Martin's book "Super-Fuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future," I was thinking to myself "Well, this is going to be just fabulous. Here we go with another loony story about alternative reactor designs - we all know that LWR plants (Light Water Reactor) are the only ones that made it, and everything else went by the wayside .. so why bother any more?"

I also thought about some reading I'd done when I was researching the article I did on this website about Elk River. That reactor, a unique indirect-cycle BWR plant, initially had thorium in its fuel (as did Indian Point 1, and a couple of other plants, too) but the program was abandoned almost as quickly as it started. Another volume in my library called "Minerals for Atomic Energy" which I consulted during the project relates the extreme difficulty in extracting thorium from monazite deposits - making it fairly uneconomical. Thorium never again figured in LWR plant operation, or any serious mainstream economic considerations about the nuclear fuel cycle, past the 60's. So, I thought, as I began to read the book, that I was about to be really unimpressed by a wild narrative of impossible designs and people all too willing to believe the unbelievable.

I was wrong by quite a long shot.

Immediately upon starting the book I was presented with a brief narrative of a hike to the site where the Clinch River Breeder Reactor construction began but which never got too far. This project in some ways represents one of a number of killed-off "should have beens" of the history of nuclear energy as it was envisioned when it became mature. We were supposed to have breeder reactors making more fuel than they produced; we were supposed to have a complete nuclear fuel cycle that included reprocessing, and a fully operational national high-level waste repository. We were supposed to have gas cooled reactors that could develop, without external (fossil fired) superheat, 1000F steam. We were supposed to have a wide array of nuclear plant designs and outputs, placed all over the nation in outputs from just a few megawatts to 1500 and more.. and we were supposed to have combined power generating and water desalination plants to solve irrigation and drought problems out West (and in Mexico.) Most of this never came to pass, thanks largely to environmentalism and to economics.

But the Clinch River project does represent one of those great "should have beens".. and that is why an illustration of it leads Atomic Power Review. At that point, Richard Martin had my attention. All too often, we see the end of a project as the end of a concept. The people working today on LFTR technology do not.

The book does of course go on to describe, in very thorough and satisfying detail, the operative cycle of LFTR plants and how they differ from LWR plants. It does go on to describe the developmental history of this kind of plant, as well as the background of some of the major players in the nuclear energy industry (both of yesterday and today) who have backed, and are backing this project. For just this, the book is useful and is commendable.

However, perhaps more startlingly (and pleasantly surprising) the author chooses to include what amounts to a capsulized history of nuclear energy in the U.S. and does so in a very interesting and very humanistic way. I especially enjoyed this unexpected inclusion .. and for just this, the book is very worth purchasing.

I do have some nitpicks with the book. The author's bias toward the LFTR concept is clear, and LWR plants are of course denigrated to an effect supportive of the author's concepts. There are a few assertions with which I might take exception, but perhaps these are errors (if they are indeed errors) borne of enthusiasm. As such, I do suppose they're tolerable.

If one wishes to get a grip (but not a super quick read, for this book is not that) on where the LFTR concept is right now, and some of the background behind its present push for commercial construction, this book should be added. For those keeping complete libraries on presently published works, it must be added, as it must for those interested in that myriad of alternative fuel and coolant technologies long since gone by the wayside in nuclear energy. There are some especially good insights on Hyman Rickover in the book; the chapter about Rickover and Alvin Weinberg (co-author of my all-time favorite book "The Second Nuclear Era") is a truly fascinating and riveting story of these men and early nuclear energy history. Although not specifically focused on LFTR concepts per se, this chapter is that which I enjoyed the most.

I really appreciate having been provided a copy of the book, and believe it makes a worthy addition to my library. In fact, I believe it to be a decent tool (if only it had a complete index!) for reference when I encounter, as increasingly I will, questions or issues about this technology on my site. Good show, Mr. Martin!



  1. I liked the book so much I got a couple volumes to pass around my town. If your interested in "what's next in energy" Thorium is it. I met Richard Martin I Chicago at the Thorium Energy Alliance conference #4 a few weeks ago. Look for video soon from the TEA. Thorium Electric Generators are being built in China (from Oak Ridge National Labs public documents). Other countries are looking into this too. Remember this: Fracking for methane, Tar Sands mining and cooking for oil, mountain top removal for coal and deep water drilling for even more oil are the sounds of the Straw at the Bottom of the Milkshake of easy fossil fuel. What comes next?
    This book outlines the problem with the existing Fossil fuel energy paradigm and describes way out of the current mess.

  2. Scott, I think I may have to steal your quote there that "Fracking for methane, Tar Sands mining and cooking for oil, mountain top removal for coal and deep water drilling for even more oil are the sounds of the Straw at the Bottom of the Milkshake of easy fossil fuel."

    That is a great way to put it.