Thorium CycleMain article: Thorium fuel cycle
In the thorium fuel cycle thorium-232 absorbs a neutron in either a fast or thermal reactor. The thorium-233 beta decays to protactinium-233 and then to uranium-233, which in turn is used as fuel. Hence, like uranium-238, thorium-232 is a fertile material.
After starting the reactor with existing U-233 or some other fissile material such as U-235 or Pu-239, a breeding cycle similar to but more efficient than that with U-238 and plutonium can be created. The Th-232 absorbs a neutron to become Th-233 which quickly decays to protactinium-233. Protactinium-233 in turn decays with a half-life of 27 days to U-233. In some molten salt reactor designs, the Pa-233 is extracted and protected from neutrons (which could transform it to Pa-234 and then to U-234), until it has decayed to U-233. This is done in order to improve the breeding ratio which is low compared to fast reactors.
Thorium is at least 4-5 times more abundant in nature than all of uranium isotopes combined; thorium is fairly evenly spread around Earth with a lot of countries having huge supplies of it; preparation of thorium fuel does not require difficult and expensive enrichment processes; the thorium fuel cycle creates mainly Uranium-233 contaminated with Uranium-232 which makes it harder to use in a normal, pre-assembled nuclear weapon which is stable over long periods of time (unfortunately drawbacks are much lower for immediate use weapons or where final assembly occurs just prior to usage time); elimination of at least the transuranic portion of the nuclear waste problem is possible in MSR and other breeder reactor designs.
One of the earliest efforts to use a thorium fuel cycle took place at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s. An experimental reactor was built based on molten salt reactor technology to study the feasibility of such an approach, using thorium fluoride salt kept hot enough to be liquid, thus eliminating the need for fabricating fuel elements. This effort culminated in the Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment that used 232Th as the fertile material and 233U as the fissile fuel. Due to a lack of funding, the MSR program was discontinued in 1976.
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