Source: | Daniel Starkey | August 23, 2017

Researchers at NRG, a Dutch firm, have started work on a fission generator that would be the first active thorium salt reactor since the closure of a reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the early 70s.

This is huge for several reasons. First, is that this means, of course, we can do more science and delve deeper into the mysteries of nuclear power than we ever have before. But second, and probably more important to most, is that thorium reactors have a massive advantage over the ones most of us are familiar with — they can’t melt down. Fukushima wouldn’t have happened. Neither would Three Mile Island or Chernobyl if we’d been using these.

So the next obvious question is: why haven’t we been working with thorium the whole time? Well, that’s a bit of history, but, essentially, the US and USSR wanted reactors that could make material for bombs. Current nuclear reactors are extremely unsafe in part because their waste is always highly toxic — after all, it’s unstable enough to dump into a warhead and blow up a city, that kind junk usually isn’t… y’know, safe to eat.

Thorium reactors, though, use different fuels and a fundamentally different design. They melt down salts for fuel and then use that molten liquid to start the reaction that makes power. That’s key because if anything happens, the system that heats the salts so they can provide fuel to the core will turn solid — stopping the reaction. You have to keep the energy coming in, or it all shuts down. Compare that to enriched uranium which has to be limited to control rods to keep the core from vomiting heat and radiation into the chamber, and you can already see the difference. Uranium supplies its own heat, meaning that if you have enough good sources, it will just meltdown by itself. With thorium that’s literally impossible. And we don’t have them now because the two largest superpowers wanted bombs and missiles that could destroy all life on earth. Makes loads of sense.

The advantages to thorium reactors are, quite frankly, ridiculous. The fuel is super abundant — especially compared to uranium. There are drawbacks too, mostly regarding expense and the complexity of the reactor design, but in terms of the things most of us worry about when it comes to nuclear anything, namely is it going to meltdown and/or can it be used to make weapons, thorium comes up aces.

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