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Page added on March 29, 2009

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Is Thorium an Energy Alchemist’s Dream?

Advocates say that already existing thorium fuel and reactor technology could provide centuries and perhaps millennia of safe, abundant nuclear power. Are they right?

Ancient alchemists attempted to turn base metals into gold. Modern physicists have succeeded where the alchemists failed. The physicists have transmuted one element into another through nuclear reactions that have mostly involved radioactive substances.

Their work revealed that nuclear fuels could be multiplied through a process called breeding in which nonfissile elements–ones not subject to nuclear fission–such as thorium-232 and uranium-238 are deliberately introduced into a reactor. Their bombardment with particles emitted by fissile elements such as uranium-235 and plutonium-239 turns them into fissile fuels–ones capable of being split–such as uranium-233 (from thorium-232) and plutonium-239 (from uranium-238). (The splitting, of course, is what results in such a huge release of energy. The controlled version is a nuclear reactor while the uncontrolled version is, as most people know, a nuclear bomb.)

Breeding would be unimportant were it not for the fact that uranium contains only about 0.7 percent uranium-235, the only naturally occurring fissile fuel. It takes a lot of work and energy to enrich uranium to the point where it contains enough uranium-235 to be useful for a nuclear reactor. And, the rarity of uranium-235 calls into question the longevity of the world’s uranium fuel supply.


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