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Saturday, December 5, 2015

thorium...clean and safe energy

To the Editors: Page 8 of the Nov. 20 edition of the Review had a story listing four famous Oberlin scientists. I’m compelled to write and offer a little bit more information on one of the selected scientists. John W. Gofman graduated Oberlin College in 1939, where he studied chemistry. He decided to make a career of medical research. He moved to Berkeley in early 1941, where he was sent to go “shopping” for a professor to do further research. John Gofman found Dr. Glenn Seaborg, who was exploring the new worlds of radioactive fission. Seaborg set up Gofman with a project to breed radioactive thorium 232 into uranium 233 (at the time a theoretical isotope). The two collaborators decided “It’s not a bad problem for a thesis.” Could non-fissile common Th232 be transmuted into the theoretical fissile isotope U233? I won’t go into the workings of the 60-inch cyclotron slamming neutrons into samples of thorium in the hopes of neutron capture, or the chemical processes involved in isolating the uranium 233 or the ultimate first fissioning of the uranium 233 sample. I will say that on Feb. 2, 1942, John Gofman and Glenn Seaborg were able to say that they had created the second human synthesized fuel source for nuclear energy after earlier work creating Plutonium 239 from U238. Seaborg noted at the time that, using fossil oil as an equivalent comparison, John Gofman had made a $50-quadrillion discovery. The Manhattan Project work during World War II took both men away from further research into the thorium to uranium fuel cycle. Years later, in October 1968, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, under the direction of Dr. Alvin Weinberg, fueled an experimental Molten Salt Reactor with uranium 233. The machine ran successfully. It was determined that a liquid-fueled reactor could run very efficiently and very safely and produce great amounts of heat. It was extrapolated that commercial MSRs could be used to produce vast quantities of electricity, desalinate seawater, and synthesize fertilizers, liquid transportation fuels and other useful materials. It would be possible to reduce and eventually eliminate fossil fuels from the electrical generation portfolio of United States. However, this clean energy path was not taken. In fact, John W. Gofman did indeed have a role in killing the development of advanced reactors with the publication of his 1971 book Poisoned Power. Gofman justifiably feared radiation from nuclear weapons detonation. He also raised many questions about the development of nuclear electric power generation during the late 1960s (as the first reactor stations were starting operation). After reading extensively on the subject, I feel his anti-nuclear-power efforts were a heartfelt but misguided attempt to put the genie back into the bottle. As I write this, world leaders are in Paris discussing climate change and how humans will reduce fossil-carbon burning. They don’t have far to look for answers, as France generates 90 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources. Seventy percent of French electricity comes from nuclear power. They have done this for 30 years. Ontario, Canada, generates similar clean energy percentages. Ten percent of the planet’s electricity is generated from nuclear power, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on a schedule. We need to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy as soon as possible. The generation of students reading this letter (and their kids) are going to bear the brunt of most of this work to transition. Despite John Gofman’s 1971 fears about nuclear power, fission of radioactive fuels has been proven to be a very safe and effective method of generating heat and electricity. China, Canada, Norway, India, the EU, Brazil and Argentina are developing molten salt reactors. The Chinese are also actively developing a Thorium MSR breeder program. Thank you for your time in reading this letter. Nuclear power is not a popular subject at Oberlin College; however, it has a proven history that most people know nothing about. Let’s all work for abundant clean, cost-effective energy for the kids and grandkids. We owe them a clean world with abundant energy. – Scott Medwid - See more at: