Review of “Superfuel”

Growing up in Oak Ridge TN in the ‘60s, terms like “homogeneous reactor,” “molten salt reactor” and “breeder reactor” were frequently used, although I couldn’t have explained them at the time. Research into nuclear power became the mission of Oak Ridge National Labs after the war under the direction of Alvin Weinberg.

A few years ago, I came across a guy on FB named Charles Barton Jr, an addiction counselor by training and a stalwart advocate for thorium molten salt reactors. His dad had done some pioneering work in the ‘50s on the technology. We became Facebook friends and I learned a little about molten salt reactors. Then, I happened to mention that we had rooftop solar and he started attacking me. Turns out, he wasn’t a reactor geek, he was a thorium tribalist, and any form of green energy other than thorium molten salt reactors was a betrayal and an adversary of his dad’s legacy. I had to block him.

Charles Barton Jr makes a couple of cameo appearances in “Superfuel,” a book about thorium nuclear power by Richard Martin. Martin is a journalist, not a scientist or an engineer. As a result, the writing is very good and doesn’t get bogged down in technical detail.

The dominant nuclear reactor technology on earth today is uranium solid fuel light water reactors or some close variant. How this came to be is a story at least as much about politics as about science. Martin uses the hero and villain trope here, with Weinberg as the hero and Adm. Hyman Rickover as the villain. Even their personalities fit their roles.

One thing I learned in reading this book is that current light water solid fuel uranium reactors only use a tiny fraction of the fissionable uranium during their lifetime. This leaves a lot of long-lived radioactive “waste.” It turns out that molten salt reactors are one way to recover much more of the energy from this “waste” and turn it into a smaller volume with a shorter half-life.

This book was published in August 2013. A lot has transpired in the world of nuclear power since then.

A forgotten war technology could safely power earth for millions of years