Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Thorium-powered nuclear reactors?

Very interesting article on the Australian cosmos magazine web site. It describes an alternative form of nuclear reactor that doesn't depend on Uranium or Plutonium, but which uses the element Thorium. Not only does the Thorium reactor not produce weapons-grade plutonium, it can also be used to burn plutonium, effectively getting rid of one of the most dangerous and long-lived substances known to man.

Furthermore, the waste produced by a Thorium reactor is relatively short-lived compared to plutonium (ie it has a half life of around 500 years compared to 10000 years for plutonium). Thorium is also more abundant, easier to mine and doesn't have to go through expensive and dangerous processing before it can be used in a reactor.

It all sounds too good to be true - if it's so great why aren't all new reactors thorium powered? Firstly there are still some technical issues to resolve - but they're being worked on. Secondly there's an entrenched nuclear industry that has a vested interest in continuing with current technology. And finally, of course there seem to be no military spin-offs from this technology.

For those of us who are against the current generation of nuclear power this new technology might seem like more of the same old same old. But there are real benefits, if this article is to be believed. Firstly thorium reactors can be used to get rid of plutonium from spent power rods or disabled nuclear weapons. Secondly it breaks that whole military connection and finally, it looks like it provides for the cheap energy that the developing world so desperately needs.

There's a lot of promise here. A mixed fuel economy that includes cellulosic ethanol, solar, wind, fuel cells and thorium nuclear reactors looks pretty sustainable to me.

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