ARC conference, London, day 2

Near the end of the day, I had an opportunity to record a message, and here’s what I said:

Here in London at the ARC conference we’ve been asked to tell a better story, and that really resonates with me, because I feel like there’s a story to tell around energy that many of you may not have ever heard before.

I believe it really is a better story, and a compelling story. It’s a story that begins many years ago in some of the darkest days that our country endured, indeed that the world endured, of World War II. And it began with a young chemist, named Glenn Seaborg, who was exploring a question that would seem utterly esoteric to most of us, involving a very little-known and little-understood branch of nuclear physics. And during his exploration of this question, he stumbled upon an amazing reality: he discovered that it was possible to transform what was otherwise a seemingly worthless element called thorium into a form of energy that surpassed all others on Earth. Dr. Seaborg was so entranced by the magnitude of this discovery that he later commented to another researcher that it was a 50 quadrillion dollar discovery. The moment was made even more significant by the fact that the world was, at that time, locked in the most deadly war that it had ever experienced. And it was a war that was predicated on a fundamentally erroneous notion, which was that there wasn’t enough to go around. That for me and people like me to have more it meant you and people like you had to have less. And that fundamentally erroneous notion was manifested in blood and war and death. It took the combined efforts of the free nations to throw off that thought, and to restore the balance of justice and mercy to the world.

Nevertheless, Dr. Seaborg, in those darkest days, held in his mind a revolutionary realization: which was that this otherwise utterly unappreciated element called thorium possessed within it the ability to provide energy to the human race that would span for millions and millions of years. His discovery was so compelling that soon, as other nuclear researchers came to understand it, they became equally compelled, and one of them was a young physicist named Alvin Weinberg. Weinberg was so compelled that, after the war, he was encouraged to take up the leadership of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States, in Tennessee, and he stated that one of his personal goals was to realize Seaborg’s discovery of thorium into an energy source that could power the world. He led a remarkable team of scientists and engineers, and they tried many different concepts before settling on an absolutely revolutionary one: a reactor they called the molten-salt reactor, wherein liquid salts of lithium and beryllium would hold nuclear materials like thorium and uranium, and allow them to release their energies in the most efficient and safest ways possible. Weinberg and his team were able to demonstrate the first stage of the release of energy from thorium at his laboratory in the mid-1960s.

Unfortunately at this time the United States was committed to a different path of nuclear energy involving plutonium, and Weinberg’s scant resources that he was expending on this program were seen as something to be taken and used for other purposes. The program was cancelled and it came to an end in the same year I was born. I learned about it many years later from colleagues where I worked at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in the early part of this century, who helped me to understand that there was a better story and a better path. I was so excited about this and so compelled that I thought, this can’t be true…there must be something more to this story. And there was, there was a lot more to the story, and I began a program of personal study and additional education in order to help fully reveal the challenges, parameters, and opportunities of this thorium technology. But what I discovered was, that while technical challenges remained, the core issue that had stopped the progress on this technology had been essentially political, and unfortunately remains essentially political.

I’m now the president and chief technologist of a company called Flibe Energy that is trying to develop this technology and to realize energy from thorium. We’ve made a number of substantial technological improvements, but at its heart is the technology that was developed there at Oak Ridge by Weinberg’s team.

What does this mean for you, and indeed for the world? Here’s the better story I want to tell you. It’s a story that, at its heart, is very, very simple: there’s not only enough to go around, there’s a lot more than enough to go around. The future is going to be brighter than the past. The false notions of lack and want and insufficiency, that have driven human beings to war for millennia, just as Seaborg knew in 1944, are fundamentally incorrect. We have an energy resource on this planet, right now, accessible to us, that will enable us to prosper and grow and flourish for many many millions of years to come.

Now perhaps we won’t do it. Perhaps we’ll ignore it, as we’ve ignored it now for so many years. Perhaps we’ll continue to fight over resources that seem finite to us. I hope we don’t, but that does seem to be the course we’re on right now. But I’m working as hard as I can in order to bring about this better story for a better world, a world where our children and your children can enjoy far greater security, cleanliness, opportunity, and advancement than they have up to this point. Please join me.

Leave a Reply