Thorium-based Nuclear Energy

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Virginia Marquez-Pacheco

When it comes to nuclear energy, the first elements that come to mind are Uranium and Plutonium. Yet, there is another alternative that researchers are working to develop: Thorium.
Thorium was discovered in 1828 by Jons Jakob Berzelius, a Swedish chemist. This element is only a little radioactive, just like the Uranium and Plutonium used in nuclear fission.
One cannot actually obtain nuclear energy from direct fission of Thorium. However, it readily absorbs an extra neutron. For those of you unfamiliar with the nuclear physics behind such a reaction, adding an extra neutron to the nucleus of Thorium will cause it to decay into Uranium-233. This isotope (a version of the ‘original’ element with the same number of protons but different number of neutrons) can then be used as the base for a fission reaction that will produce the energy we use. In the initial fission reaction that turned Thorium to Uranium-233, there was a leftover. This leftover, Pa-233, can be recycled to create more fuel for the nuclear reaction.
Using this element for nuclear reactions has many advantages. To begin, it is three times more abundant than Uranium. According to the Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency, in 2014, there was 6.2 million tons of Thorium available in known sources worldwide. Next, the by-product of the initial fission reaction can be recycled before throwing it away definitely.
Of course, the issue of security of the use nuclear energy remains under debate. Research continues to be conducted into the use of Thorium as a potential fuel for the reaction to produce nuclear energy.

Originally Published in Bandersnatch Vol.49 Issue 07 on December 4th, 2019