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The curious case of a broken crumb trail

One of the many challenges we've discussed in this column is our growing population's insatiable demand for clean, sustainable energy. Within the next two decades, we will need energy for another 2 billion people. That's new capacity—we're not even talking about replacing our aging and rapidly deteriorating infrastructure. We couldn't possibly build enough wind turbines, solar collectors and geothermal plants to even make a dent.

Wait a minute—wasn't splitting the atom and harnessing nuclear energy our ticket to unlimited supplies of electricity? At least that was the vision at the end of World War II. Instead we have countries abandoning nuclear power altogether, large tracts of uninhabitable land in places like Fukushima and Chernobyl, and more than 52,000 tons of radioactive waste piling up in storage in the United States alone.

You might be surprised to learn that we could be much further along in our quest for clean, plentiful energy were it not for a small body of critical knowledge that was lost over half a century ago.

Rediscovering lost knowledge

One fateful day in the year 2000, NASA engineer Kirk Sorenson stumbled upon a dust-covered volume published in 1958 detailing the research that was being conducted on thorium during the 1950s. It seems a group of physicists working on the Atoms for Peace project at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory had it pretty much figured out.

As a nuclear fuel source, thorium has an impressive array of benefits. It is widely abundant. China, where demand for energy is the greatest, has an estimated 20,000-year supply. It is extremely stable, and its radioactive waste remains toxic for a relatively short few hundred years. Best of all, thorium-based nuclear energy can be produced locally with small-to-medium capital investment.

Compare these benefits with the more than 400 uranium-based power plants currently in operation around the globe. Uranium and its waste products are extremely hazardous, can quickly become unstable, require tightly controlled containment environments, and toxicity lasts hundreds of thousands of years. Uranium-based power generation requires significant capital investment (tens of billions of dollars per plant).

How knowledge gets lost

So how did we get to this point? As it turns out, much of our lost knowledge is the result of how we make decisions and how we document them. When we make decisions, we tend to make them serially. Many small decisions build upon one another to the point where momentum often prevails over logic. Once we go down a certain road, it becomes increasingly difficult to back up and regroup as conditions change.

The way we document our decisions is problematic as well. Decision trees, influence diagrams and the like help us visualize and keep track of the factors that go into the "which" surrounding a decision (which fuel, which design, etc.) but fail to capture the "why." To document the "why," we can use a simple tool called an Option Outline that helps us capture a permanent record of the options considered, which options were chosen and why they were chosen.

Building the knowledge crumb trail

The decision to go with uranium-based fuel follows the serial pattern. Essentially, there were three major decision points in our pursuit of nuclear energy. First came the Manhattan Project, the purpose of which was to build a nuclear bomb. Then came the mandate to build a nuclear navy that could patrol the seas for extended periods without refueling. Finally, we embarked on the pursuit of peaceful uses for nuclear energy. Here is an Option Outline capturing what happened in sequence and why:

Decision 1: Which material for nuclear weapons production?

X Thorium (rejected). Why: safe handling but properties do not support producing a bomb.

√ Uranium (chosen). Why: can produce a bomb and also plutonium for additional bombs.

Decision 2: Which material for nuclear submarine and ship propulsion?

X Thorium (not considered). Why: arms race did not allow for going backward, despite thorium's benefits.

√ Uranium (chosen). Why: small containment environment is safe for required power levels (60 megawatts); plutonium byproducts support production of additional bombs.

Decision 3: Which material for commercial nuclear power generation?

X Thorium (not considered). Why: loss of strategic source for plutonium production for weapons, funding and timeline pressures driven by military rather than commercial requirements.

√ Uranium (chosen). Why: "proven technology" (although not for 1000+ megawatts) and plutonium byproducts support production of additional bombs.

There you have it. Although not one single nuclear bomb has been used since 1945 (thankfully), the world's precarious, aging nuclear power generation infrastructure exists mainly for the purpose of using its highly toxic byproducts to create weapons of mass destruction.

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