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 flouride 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.
23 Responses to “The Thorium Conspiracy”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.