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Thorium to impact the Nuclear power industry

22 Aug 2013
Two years after the Fukushima disaster impacted the nuclear power industry, scientists have been working in the background to find a cleaner, cheaper and safer alternative to uranium. The result of this research is thorium.

Thorium is more common in the Earth's crust than tin, mercury and silver - and three times more abundant that uranium. In fact, thorium, which is named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder, is so energy-dense that an individual can hold a lifetime's supply of electricity in the palm of their hand.

Around 14pc of the world's electricity is currently generated using nuclear power; in France, the figure is closer to 75pc. But with uncertainty over uranium prices, emissions targets to be met and a need to address post-Fukushima safety concerns, policymakers and the industry have been forced to think again.

There is also the issue of nuclear proliferation. In a traditional light-water reactor, plutonium-239 - a radioactive isotope that can be used to make weapons - is generated as a by-product of uranium-235/238 nuclear reactions. However, using thorium instead of uranium to kick-start nuclear fission produces less long-lived waste such as plutonium, reducing the security issues associated with nuclear plants.

Politicians are also listening. Michael Fallon, minister for business and enterprise, met with the All-Parliamentary group on Thorium Energy for the first time last month to discuss its benefits.