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FEATURE ARTICLE

Thorium Fuel for Nuclear Energy

An unconventional tactic might one day ease concerns that spent fuel could be used to make a bomb

Mujid Kazimi

Figure 1. Uranium fuels mostClick to Enlarge Image

Although thorium itself cannot support a nuclear chain reaction, subjecting thorium to a barrage of neutrons inside a nuclear reactor converts this element to uranium-233, which can support fission. For this reason, the designers of nuclear plants have long considered the possibility of combining thorium with a fissionable isotope, which would prime the reaction. Most countries abandoned this scheme decades ago, but increasing concerns about the diversion of plutonium from spent nuclear fuel to the construction of nuclear weapons has prompted a re-examination. Thorium-based nuclear fuels would leave far less waste plutonium than conventional fuels. What is more, the plutonium created is of a type that is unsuitable for use in bombs. The nuclear power industry is unlikely to adopt thorium for economic reasons alone, but should policymakers mandate its use in an effort to limit the proliferation of weapons, the technical modifications required of nuclear power plants would be readily achievable.


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