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Thorium shows promise for nuclear power

Nov. 9, 2011 at 12:44 PM   |   Comments

SYDNEY, Nov. 9 (UPI) -- Thorium has great potential as an alternative to uranium for nuclear fuel, experts say.

Reza Hashemi-Nezhad, director of the Institute of Nuclear Science at the University of Sydney, for more than a decade has spoken of the advantages of thorium when used in an accelerator-driven nuclear reactor that operates at sub-critical conditions, The Sydney Morning Herald reports.

''It is completely proven and feasible,'' Hashemi-Nezhad told the newspaper.

An accelerator-driven nuclear reactor, or ADS, uses thorium as fuel and doesn't produce plutonium. The institute on its Web site says a thorium-fueled nuclear reactor can incinerate its own nuclear waste as well as the waste produced from existing conventional nuclear reactors.

''You cannot have an accident similar to Chernobyl,'' Hashemi-Nezhad said, although he made no reference to Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant. ''It does not produce weapon-grade materials. And the nuclear waste is much less toxic than from a standard reactor.''

Professor Bob Cywinski, dean of applied sciences and chairman of the Thorium Energy Amplifier Association at the United Kingdom's University of Huddersfield, in a recent editorial in The Australian newspaper said just 5,000 tons of thorium could generate the entire energy needs of the world for a whole year. Four times more abundant than uranium, he claims, there is enough thorium available in known deposits to provide energy for 10,000 years.

Australia, he says, is estimated to hold 25 percent of the world's thorium deposits and India has "substantial" deposits as well.

Cywinski says almost since the start of the nuclear age, thorium had been regarded as a potential nuclear fuel. But because thorium was not able to produce plutonium for the military, Cywinski wrote, without referring to any specific governments, it was dropped at the height of the Cold War.

India is among countries actively pursuing thorium-based nuclear technology, but it is using a process that mixes thorium with specially bred plutonium. It expects to have a prototype nuclear power plant running by the end of the decade.

Ratan Kumar Sinha, director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai, told The Guardian newspaper his team is finalizing the site for construction of a thorium-fueled Advanced Heavy Water Reactor while at the same time conducting "confirmatory tests" on the design. The reactor is designed to generate 300 megawatts of electricity, which is about 25 percent of the output from a typical Western nuclear plant.

Sinha said the AHWR "will eventually have design flexibility," using either a combination of plutonium-thorium as fuel or low-enriched uranium and thorium, the latter of which he said would be in greater demand worldwide because it would generate very little plutonium.

© 2011 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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