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Thorium: Using Old Concepts to Address Problems in the Modern Energy Industry

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There are three known materials that readily undergo fission, allowing their use as a base for nuclear fuel: uranium-235, a naturally-occurring but uncommon isotope; plutonium, created from irradiated natural uranium; and uranium-233, produced from thorium. Of the three, uranium-235 and

There are three known materials that readily undergo fission, allowing their use as a base for nuclear fuel: uranium-235, a naturally-occurring but uncommon isotope; plutonium, created from irradiated natural uranium; and uranium-233, produced from thorium. Of the three, uranium-235 and plutonium feature heavily in the modern nuclear industry, while uranium-233 and the thorium fuel cycle have failed to have significant presence in the field. Historically, nuclear energy development in the United States, and thorium development in particular, has been tied to the predominant societal outlook on the field, and thorium was only pursued seriously as an option during a period when nuclear energy was heavily favored, and resources seemed scarce. Recently, thorium-based energy has been experiencing a revival in interest in response to pollution concerns regarding fossil fuels. While public opinion is still wary of uranium, thorium-based designs could reduce reliance on fossil fuels while avoiding traditional drawbacks of nuclear energy. The thorium fuel cycle is more protected against proliferation, but is also much more expensive than the uranium-plutonium cycle in a typical reactor setup. Liquid-fueled molten salt reactor designs, however, bypass the prohibitive expense of U-233 refabrication by avoiding the stage entirely, keeping the chain reaction running with nothing but thorium input required. MSRs can use any fissile material as fuel, and are relatively safe to operate, due to passive features inherent to the design.

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Date Created
2014-05