In 1957, hysteria swept over America as overnight we fell behind in the space race. Russia had launched Sputnik, the first man made satellite to the earth. America was haunted by the thought of the Russians beating us to outer space, and the implications that followed. Would we soon be monitored, or even threatened, by superior communist space technology?
These days, there isn't much of a "Red Menace," and space exploration isn't stealing the headlines. More prescient is the race to develop alternative energy technology in the age of "peak oil" and the threatening energy crisis as we look to move away from the use of fossil fuels.
Although China is a commerce partner of the United States, many consider the country not as an ally but as a threat to American values. So when the Chinese government announced a thorium research program in early 2011, many in the research community wondered if there might be another "Sputnik Moment" coming for the United States.
Thorium energy was developed in the United States in the 1960's during the Molten Salt Reactor research program. The Nixon administration cancelled its development in the early 1970's to pursue plutonium technologies. But there is definitely more research to be done on thorium, and it may provide an energy solution whose time has come.
Thorium is a safe and plentiful element that can be mined like many other heavy metals. It has the potential to replace the use of coal plants, with many small "molten salt" reactors utilized, and a much lower refueling cost than conventional nuclear reactors. Its benefits have been actively suppressed by the nuclear power industry, which lobbies for subsidies and other funding for a nuclear solution that has shown to be much more risky and dangerous, not to mention limited by the availability of uranium. And nuclear reactors are far more expensive, volatile, and expansive of an undertaking than thorium reactors would be.
Thomas Wang of West Valley for Change, a political action group, provided much of the information for this article. He indicates that thorium research may be an avenue that the United States could traverse to avoid being left behind in the energy conservation and alternative energy development frontiers.