Thorium nuclear reactors: the safer energy for the future?

Paul Boughton
What is claimed to be a new, safe, affordable and environmentally beneficial form of energy that would replace nuclear fuel is within the sights of professors Bob Cywinski and Roger Barlow at the University of Huddersfield in the UK.

The result might be nuclear power stations that could be turned on and off like a light bulb and will not create potentially dangerous by-products, simply by using thorium reactors as opposed to uranium.

In a conventional reactor, every time a uranium atom is split, it sends out enough neutrons to split a few more atoms, causing a chain reaction.  The beauty – and danger – of uranium reactors is that they just keep running of their own accord.

By contrast, thorium needs to be fed a continuous supply of neutrons to sustain a reaction.  This means that the reaction could be halted at any time simply by stopping the neutron feed.  So far, no one has built a reactor capable of doing this, but the Huddersfield scientists believe they have devised a way of doing so.

The biggest advantage, though, is that the by-product of thorium-based nuclear power would be far less toxic. 

Professor Cywinski says “The waste is still radioactive but it has a half life of 500-1,000 years rather than 10,000 years and crucially it doesn’t contain any plutonium.  A new kind of accelerator-driven, sub-critical reactor, fuelled by thorium, would solve many of the issues.  We believe that this is the energy of the future.”

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