LEMHI COUNTY, Idaho -- Back in the 1950s, America was at an energy crossroads with two choices to pick from for a new source of energy.
The Atomic Energy Commission was charged with making the decision on whether to go with uranium, or the more efficient energy source, thorium.
"The reason they decided to go with uranium is because they decided they needed to make nuclear weapons," said thorium energy activist Deworth Williams.
The Lemhi Pass District is located about 20 miles south of the city of Salmon on the Montana - Idaho border. At one time it was a hot bed for mining various minerals, but now geologists are saying there is a higher reserve of thorium in the region than anywhere in the world. And those who have staked their claim on this federal property say it is ripe for a new mining boom.
"We are talking about a thousand years of energy! Wow, that’s really something to think of," said Williams, who owns a Salt Lake engineering/investment company, which staked over 200 mining claims in the region.
Williams showed a 1990 thorium report that said, in four separate studies, it could prove there is at least 600,000 tons of thorium in the Lemhi Pass District, and he says that is enough thorium to power the United States for 1,000 years.
"That could be possible," said Boise geologist Rich Reed.
Reed was with Idaho Power in the 1970s and 1980s, and focused much of his time on the thorium reserve in eastern Idaho as a potentially major source of clean and safe energy for the U.S., and revenue for the state and Idaho Power.
When asked if thorium is a safer source of energy for the environment and local communities than uranium Reed said, "I think it is, in its natural state it’s much more stable."
Salmon High School's State Environmental Science Teacher of the Year, Arlene Wolf, uses the backdrop of the Lemhi Pass District's rich thorium reserve as a teaching opportunity, by placing a real life scenario into the symbol on the periodic table of elements.
One that would mean an economic boost for this community, and an environmental solution to the current dilemma on what to do with the waste from nuclear power plants of today.
"If we could use thorium instead of uranium we could get rid of some of that waste. We would have less transportation of fossil fuels on the highways, and less environmental issues if we could switch," said Wolf.
However, the switch would not be simple or happen soon, and 95-year-old Viola Anglin knows that.
She has had a front row seat for the thorium story for the past 66 years at her Tendoy Store at the entrance to the Lemhi Pass.
And after decades of not much activity other than the occasional tourists looking for Sacajawea's birthplace, she is seeing renewed interest in the mountain and its radioactive rocks.
"Nobody has been as interested in it as they have in the last 5-6 years," said Anglin.
She said she knows it would be an economic boost for her, her son, who is the postman, and the county if mining opened back up.
However, it’s obvious Anglin doesn’t want to give up what she has been at the base of for two-thirds of a century.
With tears in her eyes she looked up and said, "That mountain I've looked over for so many years. That’s my mountain."
Back in Salt Lake City, Williams has partnered with a powerful New York investment company, and closely watching a new thorium plant about to go up in China.
The success there could push the thorium effort here in America to Capitol Hill.
Something Williams says is critical in the transformation process in the U.S. from uranium to thorium.
"I think that would lend the push to start the political thinking here in the USA to start people wanting to convert the uranium reactors," said Williams.
Thorium.... something most of us forgot about after high school.
Now, something many are hoping will be the next "gem" to come out of the Gem State.
KTVB asked Idaho's nuclear watchdog, The Snake River Alliance, for their reaction to thorium as a possible future energy source for America:
The entire U.S. fleet of reactors is based on uranium. The idea that an already weakened nuclear industry would or could transition to thorium in a reasonable time-frame and at an affordable price challenges credulity. 30 years away is a long time in the energy world and there are much more affordable and achievable approaches to energy than thorium reactors.