As I indicated curtly in my previous post, I’m a huge proponent of nuclear power.

Though there continues to be substantial political debate whether global warming exists—largely because responding to it would be economically damaging—the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community is, and has been for some time, that global warming exists and is man-made. (See the IPCC statement, and a discussion of its significance in Nature—one of the top several scientific journals in the world, and definitely representative of the scientific community—for the most recent affirmations of that claim.) Even for those who refuse to believe in global warming—whether because they believe that the overwhelming majority of scientists and their communities are corrupt, or that scientists are incompetent, or that G-d will prevent climate change—few would argue that reducing pollution, if economically viable, is a worthwhile goal.

Nuclear energy provides a cheap, reliable, highly efficient way of generating electricity right now. Combined with a movement away from fossil fuels, nuclear power would offer cleaner air and cheaper power.

Though many argue nuclear power is unsafe, I believe their fears are largely unfounded. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are the only two nuclear-power-related accidents we’ve had over the past fifty years, and only Chernobyl had radiation leakage. Given that 443 reactors have been built and are currently operating (not even counting secret and naval reactors) according to the IAEA, fears of nuclear-power apocalypse seem overblown. Nuclear plants, meanwhile, generate no air-based pollutants, in stark contrast to coal plants, which generate relatively high levels of toxic pollutants. Given the choice, I would much rather live close to a nuclear power plant than a coal power plant.

I have far more sympathy with those who argue that countries with nuclear reactors have access to material for nuclear bombs. Sadly, far too many countries today would indeed jump at the chance to create and use nuclear weapons. Though this criticism doesn’t apply to the thirty-two countries who already have nuclear power, and therefore should not be an argument about increasing the use of nuclear power in the United States, I do think that proliferation is a viable concern with spreading the use of nuclear power in the world at large.

Thankfully, we may soon have the best of both worlds: thorium reactors may soon become a reality.

Thorium reactors, unlike uranium reactors, do not produce plutonium (and in fact, will happily, cleanly destroy plutonium as part of its reaction process), and as a result, their waste products remain radioactive for only 500 years. They’re also safer: the thorium fuel cycle is sub-critical, meaning that, in the absence of human intervention, it will burn out quietly, rendering Chernobyls and Three-Mile-Islands are impossible. Thorium is also far more plentiful than uranium, being up to 550 times more plentiful in the Earth’s crust, meaning that such a reactor would be even cheaper to operate. On paper, thorium should be perfect.

Yet thorium has a major flaw: because thorium reactors are sub-critical, they require small amounts of uranium and plutonium to keep the reaction alive, which results in a slight catch-22. Even though such a hybrid plant would be far safer than a pure uranium- or plutonium-based reactor, it accomplishes nothing to assuage anti-proliferation fears.

The good news is that this will change in the very near future. Cosmos Magazine has a great article on two new ways of powering thorium reactors—the second requiring no uranium or plutonium whatsoever, instead using a particle accelerator powered by the reactor itself to keep the reaction running. Such a reactor would offer cheap, clean, powerful fuel to power our world well into the future with minimal environmental or social repercussions.

I fully anticipate a long wait before thorium reactors make an appearance in the United States, but unless fusion power finally proves viable—something I don’t think even ITER will help achieve in the near future—thorium promises to be one of the best options for our future energy needs.