Thorium reactors have long been proposed as a cleaner, safer alternative to conventional nuclear energy, and now a new Russian study has added another potential benefit to the mix. Scientists from Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU) propose a new thorium reactor design that can burn weapons-grade plutonium, producing power and thermal energy while disposing of nuclear waste at the same time. Weapons-grade plutonium (plutonium-239) is one of the dangerous radioactive by-products of nuclear power, and with a half-life of over 24,000 years, it's tricky to store and dispose of. The substance is still packed with potential energy, but reusing it requires chemical processing that can be expensive and complicated.
Enter thorium. This element is more abundant in nature, cleaner and potentially more efficient than uranium, so thorium reactors have long been proposed as a viable alternative to conventional nuclear reactors. Unfortunately, the properties that make it attractive also raise new obstacles.
Once things get cooking in a nuclear reactor, the chain reaction can essentially keep feeding back into itself. Neutrons strike the nucleus of the atoms of the fuel source (usually uranium), breaking it into its components and releasing energy in a process known as fission. More neutrons are released along with the energy, which can in turn be used to fission other atoms.
The problem is, that self-sustaining cycle can also lead to nuclear power's most devastating downside. If operators lose control of that chain reaction or fail to properly keep it cool, a meltdown can occur, resulting in disasters like those seen at Chernobyl and Fukushima.
By itself, thorium can't sustain that feedback loop. That means it won't get out of hand on its own, but to produce power it still requires some other radioactive material. And that's where the TPU study comes in.
The Russian researchers plan to use weapons-grade plutonium to fuel that reaction, giving the reactor the safety benefits of thorium while also disposing of the nuclear waste.
#3 | ICHIRO
Not a nuclear guru, just posted it because I found the concept intriguing. In reality, if it proves feasible, what are the odds governments would turn loose of weapons grade materials?
#1 | POSTED BY REDLIGHTROBOT
Wouldn't the energy needed to bombard the radioactive material with photons exceed the energy emitted by the material?
I like the new proposal of placing carbon diamonds around the radioactive material.
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