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The Thorium Conspiracy

by Steven Novella, Apr 04 2011

One of the defining attributes of scientific skepticism is so-called metacognition – we think about thinking. Psychologists have amassed a large body of evidence about how people think – the most common patterns that we tend to fall into. It’s unfortunate that this knowledge is not put to more frequent use.

Just one nugget of such metacognitive knowledge is the so-called fundamental attribution error – we tend to attribute other people’s behavior to internal factors while ignoring or downplaying external or situational factors. At the same time, we happily excuse our own behavior with situational factors. The textbook example is that if we see someone walking down the sidewalk and tripping, we will tend to think that they are clumsy. If we trip, then we blame the crack in the sidewalk.

This mental bias works on every hierarchical level, not just for an individual act by an individual person. In other words – we make the same mistake when thinking about the behavior of groups and organizations, and not just single acts but long term behavior. This attribution error also dovetails effectively with another cognitive bias, the tendency to see conspiracies, even where they do not exist. We tend to assume that organizations and even groups of disconnected people are behaving according to some deliberate internal plan, rather than just responding to situational factors. If we are not aware of those external factors, then we tend to leap to the conspiracy hypothesis as an explanation.

I believe this is often the case with those who try to explain the fact that we are not all driving electric cars as a conspiracy of the oil and car industries. I am not neglecting the legitimate internal factors here – industries primarily are driven by profit. But there are significant external factors that are often neglected by those arguing that it is all a conspiracy. Specifically – battery technology is just now getting to the point (with lithium-ion batteries) that electric cars can have a sufficient range to be used for commuting. Even then, the technology is very limiting. Batteries are expensive, they have a limited lifetime, and they are slow to charge. Hybrid technology makes them more viable, but then you are still burning a lot of gas for your mileage.

Previous battery technology was even worse, with ranges that are useful only for driving in a city, or for short commutes. While some people may have been happy with this, these limitations definitely restricted the utility of such cars, and therefore the potential market. It is not surprising that car companies, after exploring the technology in the 80s and again in the 90s, concluded that the market would not be great enough to warrant building an infrastructure to build, sell, and maintain these cars. You might disagree with their conclusions, but that doesn’t mean there is a dark hidden conspiracy here. There were external technological factors that were significant in their decisions, and often neglected or downplayed by the conspiracy theorists.

There is a less-well known conspiracy theory surrounding another technology – thorium nuclear reactors. This conspiracy has reared its head again after the Japan nuclear meltdowns following the tsunami. In a nutshell, thorium is a potential alternate nuclear fuel to uranium for building nuclear power plants. In most power plants, some energy source is used to heat water and create steam, and the steam is used to turn a turbine which is part of a generator that generates electricity. Whether the fuel is coal, natural gas, or uranium, the final process is the same.

Nuclear reactors are highly efficient because nuclear fission generates a great deal of heat with a small amount of fuel. They are technologically sophisticated, require great safety features, and have nuclear waste material to deal with, however. And uranium is a limited resource.

A thorium reactor would be very similar to a uranium reactor, except that the fission cycle would be different. Thorium has several advantages over uranium: it is very abundant in the earth’s crust (the US in particular has massive thorium deposits), it creates less radiation than uranium so it is easier to handle, and a thorium cycle would produce less radioactive waste material (although not no waste, as some sites claim). This all sounds great – so how come we don’t have thorium reactor power plants all over the place?

That’s the question. The attribution error leads us to think that there must be some nefarious motivation keeping this technology down. One frequent claim is that the uranium cycle can also be used to make fuel for nuclear weapons, but not the thorium cycle. While this can be viewed as an advantage, it may not be for a nuclear weapons power (like the US) who need weapons grade fissionable material for their nuclear weapons.

So this can be both an advantage or disadvantage. It seems to be primarily an advantage, however. The liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) does have less potential for producing waste for use in weapons, and therefore are less of a risk for terrorist exploitation. Countries that need plutonium to make weapons can still manage to make it, even without nuclear reactors for power.

Why, then, do we not have thorium reactors? This is a hard question to answer – much more complex than the electric car question which has an obvious answer in the limits of battery technology. Here is a thorough recent report from the International Atomic Energy Agency. It’s pretty technical in places, and certainly outside my area of expertise. But from my reading (and consulting other summaries) it seems that thorium reactor technology has great promise, and many advantages. Just like electric cars, we will probably see thorium reactors in our future. But the reasons we don’t have them yet seem to be related to the fact that there are still many technological hurdles that have not yet been overcome. More research is needed in developing the fuel from thorium ore, and in designing the specific reactor cycle, and in handling the waste. We can’t just plug thorium pellets into a uranium reactors – and until all the little details are worked out, we can’t build a functioning reactor.

Research is ongoing – India, in particular seems to be aggressively researching thorium reactors. But research takes time.

I have also seen claims that thorium reactors (at least in the past) were not as cost-effective as uranium reactors. If true, we may have to wait for uranium fuel to become scarce before thorium reactors become economically attractive. Until someone completely designs, builds, and operates a thorium reactors, there will continue to be a lot of speculation on many of these details.


I don’t know exactly why we have uranium reactors instead of thorium reactors, and there seems to be a lot of opinions out there. But I do think the answer is mostly to be found in the external factors – the details of the technology and required research. This is a promising technology, and I hope it ultimately fulfills its promise. But we are not quite there yet.

The thorium question does also appear to be another example of people jumping to the internal conspiracy answer, and ignoring the external situational factors. Those types of answers just seem more appealing to many people, while saying something like, “it just takes time to work out the technology” seems very unsatisfying. But a good skeptic should rise above their inherited cognitive tendencies.

41 Responses to “The Thorium Conspiracy”

  1. Robo Sapien says:

    Oh great, now Steven Novella is also on the payroll of Big Libertarian Nuclear with Shermer and Dunning. When will the madness end?!

    Oh well, as long as this technology brings us one step closer towards having real life lightsabers, then I am content eating my soylent green along with the rest of the sheep.

    • In reality, of course, there is no “conspiracy.” Per a friend, I don’t know why, other than SEO reasons, Novella chose the title he did. And, if Skepticblog is being driven by SEO concerns, then it’s closer to a shark jump.

      Also per that same friend, light water reactors were the only ones that would fit on subs, etc. That, then, in turn, affected civilian nuclear power.

  2. Max says:

    Who holds back the electric car?
    Who makes Steve Gutenberg a star?
    We do! We do!

    • AL says:

      The Stonecutters can hold back the electric car, but please let us have the metric system.

  3. Max says:

    Some researchers come up with conspiracy theories to explain why they lost funding.

    And there were real conspiracies, like the GM streetcar conspiracy to replace streetcars with buses and ultimately cars.

  4. Bryan Elliott says:

    I wouldn’t call it a conspiracy. And I wouldn’t call India’s efforts at building a solid fueled thorium reactor a best effort; the Chinese drive for a molten salt model is a better target.

    The prevailing theory among LFTR and ThorEA advocates is that we (the US) had to make a choice as to where to spend the money, and we spent the money on the weaponable solution that was further along. The reason we hadn’t investigated past the MSRE was largely just that; we were invested in the IFR and PWR/BWR devices, they were working just fine, and MSR-type reactors are so different an animal that we wouldn’t even be able to share expertise past basic nuclear physics and chemistry. Not to mention that, for 25 years after Chernobyl and TMI, significant research on ANY new nuclear technology was met with fear, uncertainty and doubt. The IFR even suffered from this eventually, and had to be sold to GE (who are planning to release it as S-PRISM).

    A conspiracy implies intent en masse. This was, at best, a conspiracy of circumstance. You could make a case that Milton Shaw killed the MSRE project as a personal/political move against Alvin Weinberg – but a project hardly implies a conspiracy.

    Yes, there are technical challenges to the MSRs – largely the properties of graphite in a high temperature*, high neutron flux environment – but those people presently researching the reactor design are not cranks, nor have they been promoting the idleness of the technology as some kind of conspiracy.

    * This can be circumvented by just not using graphite in the core. Flouride salts aren’t as good moderators, but they still work. Doing that means a much bigger core, however, and a much larger minimum capacity. The current drive is for a 100MW reactor; without graphite, the minimum is around 750MW, which is no more attractive than existing LWRs to a power company.

    • MadScientist says:

      As far as the large urban centers go, a 750MW+ generation plant would be good news. I’ve seen coal-fired plants with 250MW generators and those plants tend to have 4-8 generators.

      I guess a Thorium reactor is still Star-Trek technology, just like the Fusion Reactor. (Well, one design of controlled fusion reactor was invented over 50 years ago, and yet we still don’t have a means of controlling and sustaining fusion to produce practical amounts of energy.)

      • Bryan Elliott says:

        “I guess a Thorium reactor is still Star-Trek technology, just like the Fusion Reactor”

        I wouldn’t say that. Fusion has yet to produce more power than it consumes in any example. A LFTR, when you take away the breeder blanket, is just a dead simple fission reactor. Mind, it’s a fluid-fueled type, but we’ve had exactly that prototype before in the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment.

        A LFTR could only be 5-10 years away if investments work out. Fusion is still the obligatory “50 years away”.

        “As far as the large urban centers go, a 750MW+ generation plant would be good news”

        They have them in conventional LWRs. The problem is that since the investment bar is so high for a GW plant, few players can do nuclear at all. A smaller footprint and form factor is key to producing the vaunted nuclear renaissance.

        Right now a few different angles are going for it; there’s at least three IFR variants designed for 60-120MW. LFTR needs to compete in that space if it’s to be economically feasible at all. And while its benefits far outweigh any additional costs in /my/ opinion, money talks.

      • Bryan Elliott says:

        Also: Fusion still has a “And Then Magic Happens” step*, and it’s that magic that’s perpetually decades away. LFTR’s design contains no magic step whatsoever.

        * Specifically, how to get the nuclei close enough to join up.

      • tmac57 says:

        Nuclear fusion as a power source is not 50 years away,it is 93 million miles away (but available now).

      • Beelzebud says:

        Hey wait, I thought fusion power was 20 years away!

      • Greg Barton says:

        “I guess a Thorium reactor is still Star-Trek technology, just like the Fusion Reactor.”

        Except that a functional molten salt thorium reactor existed for several years at Oak Ridge National Lab. My grandfather, Charles Barton, worked on that project. So unless you want to call my granddaddy “Spock” the technology definitely isn’t Star Trek level. He was Spock smart, though. :)

      • Anselm Lingnau says:

        A prototype high-temperature thorium reactor was in commercial operation in Hamm-Uentrop, Germany, in the 1980s. It was shut down for good in the aftermath of Chernobyl, after a fairly minuscule problem with the plant had occurred. German research into new nuclear reactor technology basically stopped around that time, so there has been no further interest in the topic here.

  5. In any large complex societal event there are going to be a host of contributing factors, and it is very difficulty to tease them apart and judge their relative contribution. This is fertile ground for our biases to work.

    As I said – there were internal factors, and any attempt at monopolizing an industry or segment is, in part, a conspiracy. But there are always many economic factors, and it’s very difficult to top-down engineer a change in a market or industry.

    The street car conspiracy is another good example of this. From the link provided:
    “There is now general agreement that GM and other companies were indeed actively involved in a largely unpublicized program to purchase many streetcar systems and convert them to buses, which they often supplied. There is also acknowledgment that the Great Depression, the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, labor unrest, market forces, rapidly increasing traffic congestion, taxation policies that favored private vehicle ownership, urban sprawl, and general enthusiasm for the automobile played a major or possibly more significant role. One author recently summed the situation up as follows: “Clearly, GM waged a war on electric traction. It was indeed an all out assault, but by no means the single reason for the failure of rapid transit. Also, it is just as clear that actions and inactions by government contributed significantly to the elimination of electric traction.”

    – Many factors at work. You can emphasize any ones you choose.

    • Max says:

      “Clearly, GM waged a war on electric traction. It was indeed an all out assault, but by no means the single reason for the failure of rapid transit. Also, it is just as clear that actions and inactions by government contributed significantly to the elimination of electric traction.”

      I’m sure GM lobbyists played a big role in influencing the “actions and inactions by government.”

      “Many factors at work. You can emphasize any ones you choose.”

      If some factors are more important than others, it’s not really a matter of opinion. Deniers like to throw red herrings to distract from the main culprit. A textbook example are Holocaust deniers who shift the blame from the Final Solution to other factors, like death by Allied bombings, extermination by Soviets, epidemics, and starvation.

    • Actually buying streetcar companies, tearing up tracks, etc. is an awfully damned big factor from where I sit.

      Government actions could include not intervening against GM.

    • Also, Steve, your use of the phrase “conspiracy theory” seems outside the norm. From what I’ve seen then normal usage is that it is a conspiracy-minded theory, and not, which your use implies, a theory about conspiracy.

  6. Rick Maltese says:

    There are forces that prevent Thorium Molten Salt Reactors from getting a fair chance in North America and the forces are very simply regulations and licensing. The restrictions and challenges a new company faces to get a new nuclear technology started are too expensive and requires huge investment and lobbying resources. So blame the current regulatory framework. Did anybody mention the general fear of anything nuclear. The antinukes are not so ineffective either.

    So it’s not a conspiracy it’s largely economical as well as the legal hurdles. The NRC, the DOE and the EPA all have something to do with it.

  7. Somite says:

    “Even then, the technology is very limiting. Batteries are expensive, they have a limited lifetime, and they are slow to charge. Hybrid technology makes them more viable, but then you are still burning a lot of gas for your mileage.”

    Compared to what? The reduction in consumption and greenhouse emissions by EVs and hybrids are considerable. The latest Prius achieves 50 mpg which is one third to double comprable internal combustion cars and much better if compared with heavy vehicles like SUVs. Not trivial amounts.

    I don’t find EVs to be “very limiting”. If your commute to work is 100 miles or less per day the EV liberates you fromt the gas station, forever. Plus you know you are consuming about a tenth of the oil an internal combustion car does. Also batteries do have a limited lifetime but so do other parts of internal combustion cars.

    • Somite – I disagree. First, I acknowledge that the latest lithium ion batteries are just getting tot he point where there is a limited market for them. Prior batteries had more of a 30-40 mile range.

      And as I said – some people may find this OK, but it absolutely limits the market. What if you get stuck in traffic, what if you forget to plug your car in overnight, what if you need to take a longer trip? The limited range and long recharge time is very limiting for the overall utility of the car. And this limits the market.

      And you cannot compare having to replace a 20k battery (which currently has a lot of toxic substances) with other parts that wear out. It’s a huge issue. It also makes the cars more expensive up front, only partially compensated for by tax incentives.

      That is why car companies and battery researchers are looking for other options. We need longer range, shorter recharge time, longer battery life, and less toxic materials.

      • Somite says:

        Quick clarification, the Leaf and other current EVs are meant as a second car that can handle most of your mileage if like most people you live within 100 miles of the workplace. Right tool for the right job sort of thing.

        Battery life was commonly used as an argument against hybrids too and it just turned out not to be an issue. 1st generation Prii with multiple 100k miles have had no battery problems. ( Besides the price for batteries replacement in a Prius is about 2k, not 20k (

        The issue of toxicity has also been addressed. Batteries are recycled by the manufacturer.

        Of course longer lasting bigger capacity batteries are always better but 100 miles range would cover most people with greatly reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

      • Somite says:

        It is clear that EVs at this point are meant as second cars for most people. If you live within 100 miles of your workplace a Nissan Leaf can cover most of your miles and you can use an ICE car for longer trips.

        Battery longevity has been studied in the Leaf and Nissan has published the following:

        “After 10 years, 70 to 80 percent of the pack’s capacity will be left. The exact amount will depend on how much (440-volt) fast charging is done—as well as environmental factors, such as extreme hot weather, which is tough on the battery.”

        Which doesn’t sound unreasonable to me. It is too early to tell the cost of a Leaf battery pack in 10 years but currently the Prius battery pack is $2500 not $20k. All batteries are recycled by manufacturers which by the way are less toxic that the lead-acid batteries in ICEs.

      • Out To Doubt says:

        While I have to agree with you on the battery subject; nearly all batteries are recycled by the auto recycling industry (we get about $2.50 each for used any condition auto batteries here in Florida). There is a massive amount of money in those batteries, so it’s not just the right thing to do (rarely ever the motivator) it’s just plain good business too.

        Hybrid car MPG ratings, however, are like those of all vehicles, they are determined by basically giving robots the wheel to get the best possible MPG Rating. When you or I hop into the driver’s seat the rating drops drastically. For example, a british television show called “Top Gear” pitted a BMW M5 (Powerful V8 Sport Sedan) against a Toyota Prius. Both vehicles were given the same amount of fuel and driven around a track at the brink of their ability by professional drivers. In the end the M5 was able to go around the track not only far faster, but far further.

        We live in a country that can’t wait to get where it is going. We need to move faster and further and, in turn, we use more and more energy to do so. Until we can lighten our lead filled right foot the european 50 mpg diesel powered full sized sedans (Audi A6 Luxury Sedan) will stay abroad, and the 40 MPG rating on your neighbor’s prius will remain irrelevent.

      • Somite says:

        Just be careful with the mpg comparisons between diesel and gas. Diesel is concentrated gasoline as it takes about twice the amount of oil to make the same volume of diesel than gas. Also many european mileage measurement are in imperial gallons which are larger than our gallons resulting in higher mileage.

        For a real estimate on oil consumption in cars use

      • Somite –

        EV batteries are much bigger and more expensive than hybrid batteries – 20k is more like it.

        Also, we don’t know yet how long they will last. They will have more of a deep discharge and recharge cycle than hybrid batteries. It is very likely that their range will slowly decrease over the life of the car – taking a bite out of an already marginal range.

        (bottom line – the Prius analogy is very misleading)

        Use as a second or commuter car is fine – but this will limit their utility, and therefore the market. I am not saying useless – I am saying limited.

        Recycling will help, but we currently don’t have the infrastructure for massive EV battery recycling. This shouldn’t be a problem, but was just another infrastructure barrier to widespread adoption.

        Keep in mind – I know we are on the verge on greater penetration of EVs, we are just getting to the point of limited utility. And we need some advances for full replacement of gasoline engines. My primary point was that EVs were not ready in the 1980s or 1990s, and it doesn’t take a conspiracy to explain that.

      • Well, I’d argue they were ready, but, when oil prices plunged in the late 90s, GM didn’t see an immediate market, but was afraid long-term seeds would be planted, so it re-collected and then destroyed all its EV-1s.

        If EVs weren’t ready, then why was GM building them way back when?

      • Obviously “ready” is not black and white.
        My point is – there were real technological limitations that made EVs unattractive at the time, to both consumers and manufacturers. The EV1 second generation used a NiMH battery. It was sold only in cities, designed for short commutes.

        Many potential factors could have gone into GMs decision, and I’m sure many of those factors were purely business decisions unrelated to the technology itself.

        GM claims they were testing the market, but in the end the demand wasn’t there and the numbers did not add up.

        Again, I return to my original point – there were internal and external factors. I simply don’t think we can dismiss the external (market and technological) factors and assume a nefarious motive on the part of GM.

        I also was personally very disappointed by their decision. I think in part they decided to focus their efforts on hydrogen technology – probably a mistake in hindsight. They should have kept developing their EV line, taking a short term loss even to keep ahead of the game.

      • Somite says:

        “GM claims they were testing the market, but in the end the demand wasn’t there and the numbers did not add up.”

        This is what GM claims but according to EV1 salespeople and customers the demand was there, GM just wasn’t willing to fulfill because of the perception that profits would be higher with SUVs. In reality they were right. People did initially gobble up SUVs until the reality of oil prices or emissions hit everyone.

        From the point of view of the executives it made perfect sense and they personally made millions. It just wasn’t a good long term strategy for the company or society as a whole. Also not a good strategy if you consider the negative effects of exporting oil from hostile countries. Another good anti-libertarian argument.

      • @Somite … in the past 50 years, nobody has even successfully accused any of the Big Three of long-term thinking!

      • Somite says:

        Just reviving this oldie for a moment. The CVP of Nissan dispels many battery myths on this video and mentions Steve’s misconception that the batter costs 30k to replace. It turns out that the system is modular and you can replace individual modules rather than the entire battery pack if out of warranty:

    • MadScientist says:

      In the case of pure electric vehicles, some power plant needs to provide the juice. If there were widespread ownership of such vehicles, that requires an enormous increase in power generation capacity. So, ultimately, to cut down CO2 emissions we’ll need renewable sources (sun, tides, wind) to supply the bulk of electricity. In the shorter term, nukes are ready to go and coal-fired with CO2 geosequestration is a matter of telling people to build it or be taxed. Other alternatives (such as solar photovoltaic fields) also need some sort of economic incentive to get them to the point of large-scale trials.

      • Somite says:

        Why are all this negative assertions about EVs discussed as facts? This have been proposed scenarios which to my knowledge have not been proven or have outright been proven untrue. The claim that reductions in greenhouse emissions are not real in EVs is simply untrue because large power plants are more efficient than small engines. This is the fuel consumption comparison between the Nissan Leaf, a Prius and your typical SUV. In terms of oil consumption the Leaf is many times more efficient than even the Prius.

        Can I ask of the skepticbloggers that references are provided when making fuel and energy efficiency claims? If even Novella is repeating the FUD without references we are in trouble!

  8. jrpowell says:

    You totally stole the title of my retro-pulp novel set in the 1920’s!

  9. Jim says:

    those who try to explain the fact that we are not all driving electric cars as a conspiracy of the oil and car industries.

    I think this is a bit of a strawman. I think most people appreciate the engineering difficulties involved in fully electric cars. It also depends what you mean by “conspiracy”. Because there has been a very concerted effort by oil industry to stop comprehensive climate legislation from being enacted and to spread scientific disinformation on climate change. Those efforts certainly haven’t helped fuel efficiency or the development of electric cars.

    • It’s not a strawman – see Who Killed the Electric Car. I also hear this argument all the time – clearly the meme has legs.

      • Somite says:

        It wasn’t a conspiracy as much as a bad business decision. EV1 and eRav4 owners on the whole where very happy with their vehicles and were sad to have it taken away after the lease ran out without option!

        It was just cheaper for GM and more profitable to make inefficient SUVs than EVs and the political and business maneuvering was undertaken to achieve this goal.

  10. Beelzebud says:

    Everyone knows we’re hoarding all the thorium for our doomsday device!

  11. Geoff says:

    I like this article on it’s stance against conspiratorial thinking, but I believe the target, Thorium, is just headline grabbing. There are many factors that went/go into reactor design in the U.S. and one of them was/is most likely the nuclear weapons programs that started the research into power generation. Thorium power, specifically the LFTR design is here now, and could be implemented. No technology is perfect, but LFTR models show it to be much safer, cleaner, and more efficient than current reactor designs.
    Kirk Sorenson who runs had a great interview on skepticblog’s own Dr. Kirsten “kiki” Sanford’s twit show “Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour,” which explained many of the challenges and benefits to the LFTR Design. It’s a good episode and it got me fired up for thorium!
    Is thorium ready to bring us the future? who knows, but I’d love to see a LFTR reactor built and tested to see if it’s ready. Based on what I’ve read, the LFTR design would have prevented most of the errors and problems currently being experienced at the Fukushima power plant in Japan.