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Dutch look to build safer nuclear power using thorium

Roland Weihrauch / AP

Researchers at a nuclear research facility in the Netherlands are working on building up molten-salt nuclear reactors that would use thorium as a fuel, according to New Scientist. Using thorium to produce nuclear power is considered to be much more stable than using uranium to power nuclear reactors, but using uranium is more common.

That may be due to Cold War strategic decisions: uranium-based reactors can produce plutonium, which has been desirable for making nuclear weapons. Another reason may be cost: fuel fabrication costs using thorium are driven up due to the high level of radioactivity built up in U-233, the fissile fuel material that thorium can get transformed into when it's bombarded with neutrons, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Why thorium is safer: When thorium gets transformed into U-233, it leaves fewer long-lived radioactive waste products than U-235 (which is usually what is now used in nuclear power plants).

Other benefits: Thorium is more abundant in nature than uranium and it would serve as a poor input for fissile materials, making one of the risks of developing nuclear power — that it could be used to create weapons — moot.

What's next: The researchers in the Netherlands will study metal alloys and materials that can survive high heat and the corrosive conditions inside such reactors, as well as how to handle waste.

India, China, and a Utah startup are also currently investing in thorium-based nuclear power.