Nuclear energy: Frontiers

By Richard Garwin (Image: Pallava Bagla/Getty) Read more: “Instant Expert 32: Nuclear energy“ With the world’s population set to rise to 9 billion in 2050, humanity will soon consume more energy than the combined total used in all of history. Even today, we produce greenhouse gases at the rate of 1000 tonnes per second. Nuclear energy could fulfil our needs without generating any greenhouse gases, but we will need to find novel ways to use it that will reduce its risks Why use uranium as the nuclear fuel of choice when another fuel offers the same emissions-free energy without the danger? That’s the argument made by proponents of thorium reactors. They claim that thorium can provide nearly unlimited clean energy without generating long-lived waste or reprocessing dangers. Perhaps because of this promise, India’s future nuclear programme will rely heavily on thorium, and recently China has also joined this race. Thorium is two places away from uranium on the periodic table, and occurs naturally as a single stable isotope, thorium-232. It is not fissile – its nucleus does not readily split. But it can supply fuel for a reactor if it is converted to uranium-233 by firing neutrons at it (see diagram). It is the same process that bumps uranium-238 to plutonium in existing reactors. The technology has not yet been fully developed, but claims that it would be immune to the problems that led to the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima are unfounded. It is true that thorium technology would produce a fraction of the long-lived radioactive waste generated by standard uranium reactors. However,
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