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The Power of THORium. A rambling on Fission Fiction.

Nuclear power has been in the news again today. Well, not really nuclear power, but a nuclear waste processing plant.

Headlines were flying around this morning about a blast at a Nuclear plant in France, all sorts of spurious claims being made, the usual anti-nuclear arguments surfaced. As the day has worn on though, more and more details have been revealed. Not all the information is known, but the various reports all have a few things in common:

  • There is no danger from radiation because of the blast.
  • The blast was located in, or around, a furnace that was used for melting very low grade nuclear waste and/or disposing of materials, clothing and equipment used in other parts of the complex.
  • One man died and 4 others were injured.
That last point interests me a little, not because of the loss of human life, but because only one man dying in an Nuclear related accident gets higher headline billing than the 76 people (so far) that died in Nairobi. In case you hadn’t heard a gasoline pipeline spilt petrol into an open sewer in a slum in Nairobi, people scrambled to scoop up the precious resource, and an unfortunate cigarette butt somewhere along the sewer ignited the petrol. So far there have been 61 confirmed deaths and many more injured.
What makes the French blast more newsworthy than the Kenyan one? Is it that one French man is more important than 61 Kenyans? Maybe it’s to do with the timing of it? or perhaps it’s because the news about the French blast contains the dreaded word “Nuclear”?
Seriously people, why are you all so scared about nuclear power? How many of you are now frantically making up responses about Fukishima? Yes, that was a disaster, so much so it overshadowed the Tsunami that devastated far more of the country.
Do you know how many people died in the Fukushima incident? Two. Two workers, when the earthquake struck, rushed into the turbine room to try and shut things down to save the plant. They were there when the Tsunami hit. A third worker who had been helping with the aftermath died on May 14th. He died of a heart attack.
Do you know how may people died in the Middletown Gas and Oil fired power plant explosion last year? whats that? you didn’t hear about the explosion at the Connecticut power plant? you do surprise me, it killed 5 people. Maybe if the word “nuclear” had been in there you would have heard more.
Why is it that Nuclear has such a bad reputation? well the obvious answer is to do with Nuclear weaponry. The sheer destructive power f an atomic bomb has been seen many times in videos, both fictional and real. So is it any surprise that when people hear of Plutonium and Uranium they automatically assume that an atomic reactor is just a bomb thats kept under control?
What if there was an alternative? I am in no way referring to the hugely expensive an inefficient windturbines, but to Thorium. Current research is leading the way to making nuclear reactors use Thorium instead of the usual Plutonium and Uranium, in fact there is a reactor being built in India right now that will be powered by Thorium.
Science bit ahead, feel free to skip past the italics:
What makes Thorium so different to Uranium then? it’s still nuclear isn’t it? Well, yes it is, the process is still the same, splitting an atom creates energy, which creates heat which is used to make steam, which is used to turn turbines to create electricity. What makes Thorium different is the process. Thorium itself isn’t that radioactive, in fact if you crouch down and pick up a hand full of soil you will have some Thorium in it. What Thorium does do though, is it absorbs a Neutron, undergoes Beta decay (where it loses an electron from the nucles) twice and leaves Uranium 233, which when struck by another Neutron undergoes nuclear fission and produces the heat. The number on Neutrons produced in each stage is limited, and as they are essential to keep the process going left to it’s own devices the reaction would quickly die out, so a chain reaction leading to Meltdown isn’t really possible. The reactions can only be maintained by having a constant input of Neutrons, cut the supply and the reactor stops working. This is achieved by firing a beam of protons at some other material to “knock” neutrons out of it. One design utilises molten lead for this material, the benefits being that it is an excellent heat conductor, and as a liquid convection would raise the hot lead to the top of the reactor where pipes can transfer the heat away, this has the added benefit that there needs to be no pump for the primary coolant.
A few key points about using Thorium as a nuclear fuel:
  • Due to the short life span and the fact it’s surrounded by molten metal, it would be extremely hard to get any form of Uranium 233 from a Thorium reactor, so no worries about dirty bombs being made from them.
  • Thorium does not sustain a chain reaction, if you turn of the priming beam of protons, the reaction dies out. You don’t need to insert control rods.
  • If using a liquid metal design (and other similar designs too) the act of convection will transfer the heat so there are no need for primary cooling pumps, less chance of anything going wrong.
  • Thorium waste is much less long lived than current Plutonium and Uranium reactors, when the waste first comes out it is at a similar level, but as time goes by it gets weaker at a faster rate. Within 500 years it is 10,000 times less radioactive than conventional nuclear waste.
  • Thorium comes out the ground in a useable form and doesn’t need to be “enriched” before use, it just needs to be separated from the rest of the sand and dirt.
  • Thorium deposits are all over the world, no one country would be able to claim domination over it’s supply.

So, in my usual stye, to summarise. Thorium is good, and it has the potential to replace Uranium and Plutonium as a safer cleaner form of Nuclear power. The word “Nuclear” is more devastating psychologically than radiation is physically. One recent study showed that the background radiation you would have received living in the area around Chernobyl after the explosion would have been less than if you lived in a major city, same would apply to Fukishima where background radiation levels quickly returned to normal, it is merely fear and hype that keep people away, the Japanese governments policy of the exclusion zone is more psychologically damaging than the radiation itself.

Links and further information:
Also if you are on twitter and are interested in Nuclear Power try following @pro_fission_UK
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