Even better, Weinberg realized that you could use thorium in an entirely new kind of reactor, one that would have zero risk of meltdown. The design is based on the lab’s finding that thorium dissolves in hot liquid fluoride salts. This fission soup is poured into tubes in the core of the reactor, where the nuclear chain reaction — the billiard balls colliding — happens. The system makes the reactor self-regulating: When the soup gets too hot it expands and flows out of the tubes — slowing fission and eliminating the possibility of another Chernobyl. Any actinide can work in this method, but thorium is particularly well suited because it is so efficient at the high temperatures at which fission occurs in the soup.
In 1965, Weinberg and his team built a working reactor, one that suspended the byproducts of thorium in a molten salt bath, and he spent the rest of his 18-year tenure trying to make thorium the heart of the nation’s atomic power effort. He failed. Uranium reactors had already been established, and Hyman Rickover, de facto head of the US nuclear program, wanted the plutonium from uranium-powered nuclear plants to make bombs. Increasingly shunted aside, Weinberg was finally forced out in 1973.
That proved to be “the most pivotal year in energy history,” according to the US Energy Information Administration. It was the year the Arab states cut off oil supplies to the West, setting in motion the petroleum-fueled conflicts that roil the world to this day. The same year, the US nuclear industry signed contracts to build a record 41 nuke plants, all of which used uranium. And 1973 was the year that thorium R&D faded away — and with it the realistic prospect for a golden nuclear age when electricity would be too cheap to meter and clean, safe nuclear plants would dot the green countryside.