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A promising and safer alternative to uranium-fueled nuclear reactors
February 16, 2023
It was 1987 near the Pennsylvanian capital of Harrisburg when, at 4 am on an early March morning, Unit 2 of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant went into partial meltdown. According to the National Library of Medicine, radioactive plumes spread to distances of “375 kilometers” around the premises. A combination of “equipment failure and operator error” led to the accident, yet thankfully no deaths came of it. Rather, the meltdown was and is a reminder of the dangers of nuclear energy and brings into question the efficacy and safety risks of the medium for creating electricity. It is often debated how the damage of burning fossil fuels and mining coal affects the environment – how unsafe it is for workers on the front lines – and the argument appears to hold up. Nuclear energy, however, can be much more devastating in a shorter period of time when it truly goes wrong.
Chernobyl is a prime example of a meltdown going truly wrong. It was April 26, 1986 – technicians ran a poorly planned experiment. According to Britannica Encyclopedia, “they [technicians] shut down the reactor’s power-regulating system and its emergency safety systems, and they removed control rods from its core while allowing the reactor to run at 7 percent power.” As one would guess from the given situation, this went drastically wrong; several explosions occurred shortly thereafter, with lots of radioactive material being thrown every which way. In the present day, the Chernobyl radioactive zone which cannot be inhabited for long periods of time expands over a swath of 1,600 miles. These two plants where meltdown unfortunately occurred were run by uranium fuel, a silvery-white radioactive element which is very effective in creating nuclear weaponry and extracting heat which turns into power if properly controlled.
What really is a nuclear power plant and why is it seen as an especially effective solution for electricity in society? Nuclear power is commonly believed to be a process in which radioactive and unstable material is turned into stable and useful electricity, yet most of the time people do not know the full procedure. Water is the main ingredient, just as it is the most important substance for humans. In general, ”nuclear power plants heat water to produce steam” (U.S. Energy Information Administration). Outside of layman’s terms, power plants create energy by splitting the atoms in the molecules of (typically) uranium through a process called fission, artificially creating a very large amount of heat which is then transferred to a vat of water. The water turns into steam, moving giant turbines which turn kinetic energy into electric energy – an energy viable for most homes in the United States.
Uranium is the go-to fuel for nuclear power plants, mostly because it was useful in the creation of nuclear weaponry during World War II and the periods that followed. It was thus more researched and the excessive by-products were turned into weapons for war and so it made sense to base the specific energy sector around the element. Recently, however, an element by the name of thorium has been thrown around and is being heavily considered by major world powers as a replacement for uranium for a few important reasons:
- Thorium is “three times more abundant” than uranium in the Earth’s crust. (Stanford University).
- One ton of thorium produces as much as “200 tons of uranium, or 3.5 million tons of coal” according to the Scholarly Community Encyclopedia.
- Thorium is not weaponizable.
- Thorium is fertile; it cannot undergo fission on its own and must be paired with an element like plutonium. This means that thorium is much safer than uranium… if a reaction goes wrong, plutonium can be taken out and the reaction instantly stops. However, with uranium, if the reaction goes wrong there is no way to stop it.
- Thorium’s radioactivity is 20 times less than that of uranium.
Among these reasons are many more… all of which seem to point toward a future of thorium based nuclear energy. Thorium appears to be safer, more abundant, cheaper, and less war-prone than uranium, yet the world still pushes forward using uranium as the main fuel source. It may take time, decades or centuries, for the world to use thorium; or maybe, thorium will prove to be a fluke and the world will find even better ways of obtaining energy without having to risk nuclear meltdowns and figuring out where to put waste. Sometimes the answer that makes sense and seems the most obvious takes the most time to get to, whether it be custom or the simple fact of human nature that change is difficult but inevitable.