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To Solve Nuclear Power Plant Problems, Use Another Fuel

Despite Fukushima, nuclear energy is probably here to stay. Can we make it safer by changing to a new fuel? It turns out there could be an entirely new type of nuclear reactor, that could not only be operated safely without generating long-lived radioactive waste, it could even consume the toxic waste generated by conventional nuclear reactors.

Conventional reactors are fuelled by the uranium isotope U-235. When the atoms split, they releases neutrons, which then begin an energy-generating nuclear chain reaction by splitting more U-235 atoms. The problem with this fuel is that it produces plutonium as waste that must be buried, because it never ceases to be radioactive. And since the chain reaction it starts never stops, the reactor powered by it can go out of control.

But if we replaced U-235 with thorium--a "close cousin" of uranium--we could run our nuclear power plants more safely, because, unlike 235, the thorium atom does not easily split, making it safe to store and handle--and there's plenty of it right in the ground. But since thorium is not "fissile," we need to change it to another form before we can use it.

The way to do this is to bombard it with a beam of protons in a particle accelerator, changing the thorium into uranium-233. This type of fission is not self-sustaining, so in case of an emergency, the fission will stop immediately when the beam is switched off. Also, the small amount of toxic waste generated by the thorium/uranium-233 fuel cycle stops being radioactive after a few hundred years, rather than thousands of years in the case of U-235.

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