The Daily Kos once published a great post, Why We Need the Liquid Thorium Reactor, which supplies an easily-understood explanation for a complex technology that is becoming extremely important in the nuclear industry. It's recommended reading for those who don't have the patience to wade through the more technical nuclear blogs I link to on my blogroll.
For those who want to explore the subject in more depth, Charles Barton at Nuclear Green , and Kirk Sorensen and Charles Barton together at Energy From Thorium discuss the LFTR technology as well as other newer nuclear technologies and "renewable" technologies, in great detail on these two blogs, which are considered by other scientists and technicians to be among the richest sources of energy information on the web.
The United States, now a technological laggard, is planning only Generation III light water reactors, which, while being vast improvements on older nuclear technologies in terms of safety, efficiency, and cost, are still tremendously expensive and inflexible. Current industry players here in the United States tend to be dismissive of the thorium technologies, as I discovered when I attended a "dog and pony" show for a uranium mining stock recently and, when I inquired of its CEO if there were plans to mine thorium, he was downright defensive (it seemed to me) and said that the thorium technology would never be developed and had no potential. I could see from his reaction that I'd hit a nerve, for thorium is vastly more plentiful than uranium 235 and would probably render his struggling little uranium mining operation superfluous. Meanwhile, other countries are not waiting for the United States to put its stamp of approval on the most promising energy technology since the first controlled nuclear chain reaction here in Chicago nearly 70 years ago, but are forging ahead and aggressively developing thorium nuclear power, with us or without us. India has been unable to trade in conventional nuclear fuel because of its exclusion from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and therefore has a much greater incentive to develop new technologies that do not require it, and is aggressively developing thorium technology to exploit its indigenous reserves of thorium. Not surprisingly, India has become the front-runner in the development of the LFTR and intends to supply 25% of its electricity by this technology by 2050.
The LFTR technology makes for an intrinsically much safer, cleaner and cheaper reactor that extends the fuel cycle almost into infinity, is much more "scalable" in that the units are smaller, for power plants that can consist of one small reactor for a small town, or clustered together as need dictates. The units are built at the factory and transported sealed by truck and rail to the site, and there can be either buried for greater security or, as some technicians suggest, installed in decommissioned coal-fired plants.
The United States, like other formerly successful countries, is pouring the last of its wealth and resources into the rearguard effort to sustain old, obsolete, and unsustainable industries while spurning developments that could considerably offset the depletion of fossil fuel supplies, supply much cleaner energy and far greater quantities of it, and replace our dying old industries as the drivers of economic growth, with new, growing industries supplying the goods, services, jobs, and wealth we will need in the future. Our regulatory agencies and our ossified utilities with their protected monopolies are years behind the curve in knowledge and development of new technologies.
Instead of shoveling evermore money and effort at shoring up the dying auto and suburban-house-building industries, we need to remove the obstructions to new technologies and new industries, and most of all rediscover the sense of purpose and forward motion that made this country, 100 years ago, the greatest industrial powerhouse the world had ever seen and gave us the prosperity and unparalleled comfort and amenity that we now seem to think are God-given entitlements. The revival of the nuclear power industry and the development of new nuclear technologies could be the start of the development of a new industrial economy that is sustainable for many decades into the future and could make it possible for our swelling population to make a living and enjoy a reasonable level of comfort and amenity in a time of dwindling resources and heated competition for remaining supplies of liquid fuels.