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Using thorium could reduce risk of nuclear power

The metal thorium could be a cheaper, cleaner and safer alternative to plutonium and uranium. So why is is not being used in nuclear reactors all over the world?
Professor Carlo Rubbia, from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Cern), tells why he has been pushing thorium as a nuclear alternative.
Though it was discovered in 1828, the metal has not been developed as a nuclear fuel until very recently when countries such as Russia, India and China started making plans to build reactors that use it.
This, says Professor Rubbia, is because the metal cannot be used to make an atomic bomb, and its potential was never exploited by Cold War scientists in the same way that uranium and plutonium was.

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Named for the Norse god of thunder, thorium is a lustrous silvery-white metal. It's only slightly radioactive; you could carry a lump of it in your pocket without harm. On the periodic table of elements, it's found in the bottom row, along with other dense, radioactive substances - including uranium and plutonium - known as actinides.
Actinides are dense because their nuclei contain large numbers of neutrons and protons. But it's the strange behaviour of those nuclei that has long made actinides the stuff of wonder. At intervals that can vary from every millisecond to every hundred thousand years, actinides spin off particles and decay into more stable elements. And if you pack together enough of certain actinide atoms, their nuclei will erupt in a powerful release of energy.
To understand the magic and terror of those two processes working in concert, think of a game of pool played in 3-D. The nucleus of the atom is a group of balls, or particles, racked at the center. Shoot the cue ball - a stray neutron - and the cluster breaks apart, or fissions. Now imagine the same game played with trillions of racked nuclei. Balls propelled by the first collision crash into nearby clusters, which fly apart, their stray neutrons colliding with yet more clusters. Voila: a nuclear chain reaction.
Actinides are the only materials that split apart this way, and if the collisions are uncontrolled, you unleash hell: a nuclear explosion. But if you can control the conditions in which these reactions happen - by both controlling the number of stray neutrons and regulating the temperature, as is done in the core of a nuclear reactor - you get useful energy. Racks of these nuclei crash together, creating a hot glowing pile of radioactive material. If you pump water past the material, the water turns to steam, which can spin a turbine to make electricity.

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