The problem isn’t that Iran seeks nuclear power. The problem is that, like the rest of the world, Iran has made a poor choice of nuclear fuel. Uranium, the fuel that runs the world’s nuclear reactors, is lethal even when it’s not packed in a bomb. It’s absurdly complicated to handle, its behavior is touchy and unpredictable, and its waste is fatal to humans for millions of years after we’ve wrung the small amount of energy from it that our technology allows. Instead, Iran can follow the lead of China, India, Brazil, and other nations and turn to thorium. Thorium is an obscure, mildly radioactive metal produced as a waste product from the mining of rare earth minerals. This waste sits in piles on the ground in China, which produces most of the world’s rare earths; it’s locked away underground in most other countries, which have followed the US’s lead in banning the mining of rare earths because the process produces radioactive waste – in the form of thorium. Yet when thorium was tested as a nuclear fuel in the 1950s, it was found to be both cleaner and safer than uranium. It can’t melt down or spontaneously explode when a “critical mass” of it is piled up; and it produces mainly alpha radiation, which is so weak that it can’t penetrate skin. Although thorium does produce a trace of radioactive waste that endures for billions of years, the amount is vastly smaller than uranium’s leavings. Thorium also is more easily accessible around the world than uranium and more plentiful – it’s about three times as abundant as tin. In theory, a lump of thorium the size of a golf ball could supply the lifetime energy needs of a typical American – and more than that of an Iranian.
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