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In a conventional nuclear reactor, enriched uranium fuel is converted into plutonium and small amounts of other transuranic compounds.There are ways to recycle plutonium, but for many countries, such as the USA, it is simply a waste product of nuclear power — a waste product that will be dangerously radioactive for thousands of years.
Any technological development that could reduce the production of plutonium, or consume our massive stocks of plutonium waste, would be a huge boon for the Earth’s (and humanity’s) continued well-being.(See: Nuclear power is our only hope, or, the greatest environmentalist hypocrisy of all time.)Enter thorium.Natural thorium, which is fairly cheap and abundant (more so than uranium), doesn’t contain enough fissile material (thorium-231) to sustain a nuclear chain reaction.By mixing thorium oxide with 10% plutonium oxide, however, criticality is achieved.This fuel, which is called thorium-MOX (mixed-oxide), can then be formed into rods and used in conventional nuclear reactors.At a test site in Norway, Thor Energy has successfully created a thorium nuclear reactor — but not in the sense that most people think of when they hear the word thorium.
The Norwegians haven’t solved the energy crisis and global warming in one fell swoop — they haven’t created a cold fusion thorium reactor.
What they have done, though, which is still very cool, is use thorium instead of uranium in a conventional nuclear reactor.
In one fell swoop, thorium fuel, which is safer, less messy to clean up, and not prone to nuclear weapons proliferation, could quench the complaints of nuclear power critics everywhere.
Not only does this mean that we can do away with uranium, which is expensive to enrich, dangerous, and leads to nuclear proliferation, but it also means that we finally have an easy way of recycling plutonium.
Furthermore, the thorium-MOX fuel cycle produces no new plutonium; it actually reduces the world’s stock of plutonium.
Oh, thorium-MOX makes for safer nuclear reactors, too, due to a higher melting point and thermal conductivity.