Does abandoned Idaho mine hold key to energy independence?

Does abandoned Idaho mine hold key to energy independence? »Play Video
A large rock from an abandoned Thorium mine in central Idaho.
LEMHI PASS, Idaho -- Head out to the mountains of Lemhi Pass in central Idaho and you'll find an old, abandoned mining camp, and a dreamer named DeWorth Williams.

"There's enough Thorium here to power the United States for 500 years," Williams said.

But it's in this mining camp, with its abandoned bunk houses and long-forgotten roads, that the idea of a Thorium-powered world died 40 years ago.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, there was hope that humanity was on the cusp of something incredible: We were going to split the atom to create limitless electricity, and as a result, there would be world peace.

America had a choice to make in the 1950s and 60s: Get nuclear power from Uranium, or from a now mostly forgotten element called 'Thorium'. In theory, Throrium is more plentiful, more efficient, and far safer than Uranium.

They actually made a reactor fueled by Thorium at Oak Ridge National Laboratories. It worked. And so, we came to a fork in the road of history: Uranium or Thorium?

There's a hint of bitterness in DeWorth Williams' voice today when he says, "in the end it was Uranium that was selected, because the government wanted to build bombs."

The problem with Thorium was that you couldn't make enriched Plutonium as a by-product. But with Uranium you could, and with enriched Plutonium, they could make nuclear bombs. The rest, as they say, is history.

But what if we had gone with Thorium? What would the world be like today?

John Kutsch, director of the Thorium Energy Alliance says plainly, "The lost opportunity for a half century of not using this for commercial purposes is almost unfathomable."

Former NASA engineer and nuclear technologist Kirk Sorenson agrees.

"I think if the road of Thorium would have been pursued with the kind of resources that had been devoted to other ideas, we would have seen Thorium reactors coming on in the 1990's... and we would have been completely energy independent by the early 2000's," Sorenson said.

Ultimately, in 1972, the Thorium mining operation in Idaho was shut down. The stuff was now worthless. But DeWorth Williams climbed around in the mountains, staked claims, and bought up hundreds of veins of the stuff, just in case.

It's the purest, richest stash of Thorium known in the world, although that isn't to say it doesn't exist elsewhere. In India for instance, there is plenty of Thorium, but it's mixed in with sand, and the process of removing it from that sand is expensive.

Thorium is, of course, radioactive. There are signs on the mountain reminding you of that as you walk around.

We took some chunks of rock from the mountain in Idaho to Boise geologist Rich Reed. Using a spectrometer to measure the radiation, the thing practically squealed when Reed pointed it at the rock.

"This stuff is hot... you've got some hot stuff there," Reed said.

Today in the aftermath of Fukushima and 3-Mile Island, with the reputation of nuclear power at an all-time low, men like Kirk Sorensen and John Kutsch are bringing the nuclear energy dream back from the dead, powered this time by Thorium.

"If we are able to realize the energy from Thorium, it really will be the end of energy crisis on Earth for the rest of human history," Sorensen said.

Kutsch added: "It's absolutely not an exaggeration to say that Thorium used in molten salt reactors can save and change the world."

Molten salt reactors use a complex process that is almost completely opposite of a light water reactor.

"With a light water reactor you're always trying to keep it under control... and keep it managed," Sorensen said. "With a molten salt reactor, you're always trying to keep it on. So almost the minute you stop trying to keep a molten salt reactor running, it starts to shut off."

So essentially, in simple terms, just turn off the power and disasters like Fukushima are avoided.

Experts say the molten salt reactor, powered by Thorium, can produce 90-times as much energy as Uranium, the waste lasts only 1/1000th as long, and they talk about a revolution in the use of electric cars powered by cheap, Thorium-produced energy.

But there are non-believers.

"I don't believe in Thorium reactors as being a new, different, or likely part of nuclear power's future," said David Lochbaum, Director of the Nuclear Safety Project. "But for disclosure, I also don't believe in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, or that Elvis works at a Burger King in Michigan."

Lochbaum says there are still dangers.

"The Thorium reactors still produce a lot of energy for a small amount of material, and if you don't properly deal with that, you can overheat and damage the fuel and release large amounts of radiation."

Sorensen replies: "Yes, they do produce large amounts of heat, that's why we're interested in them! They produce more heat per unit mass than anything we've ever come across in the world!"

So why aren't we using Thorium now? China and India are already diving into Thorium.

But in the U.S., Thorium believers say it's a combination of factors -- the largest being the sheer cost of researching, and building enough molten salt reactors to power America. They say that at this point there isn't enough political fortitude and real determination on the part of the public to make the Thorium dream a reality.

In the meantime, Williams wonders with the potential for limitless energy that's cheap and safe with no pollution, how can we not afford to find out?

"Automatically, you think, 'Why isn't this happening?' " he said. "And so it's here... it's ready to happen."