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The Bulletin

As thorium tests begin in Norway, the nuclear industry watches closely

Posting in Design

Putting its foot down. The thorium crowd is adamant that thorium trumps uranium for nuclear safety and efficiency. These engineers stand atop the test reactor in Halden, Norway, which is now burning thorium.

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A small Norwegian company is testing thorium fuel as a replacement for uranium at a reactor in Norway, catching the attention of the conventional nuclear industry, which has acknowledged that thorium could provide a safer and less weapons-prone nuclear power future.

Oslo-based Thor Energy started burning thorium at a test reactor in Halden, Norway in late April.

While thorium enthusiasts promote the element as a safer alternative to uranium, the conventional industry - built on uranium - often downplays the element named after the Norse god of thunder.

Thus, it was notable when World Nuclear News took note of the trial last week and played up thorium's potential superiority. WNN is part of the World Nuclear Association, a conventional nuclear industry group. In its story, it pointed out that thorium "promises higher operating safety margins...and produces no new plutonium as it operates."

Here comes the thorium. Rods of thorium-plutonium fuel in a rig for the Halden reactor.

One of thorium's many advantages over uranium is that it leaves less long-lived waste such as plutonium, which can be used to make bombs. It can also operate more efficiently than uranium, and is well suited for alternative reactor types known as molten salt reactors that use liquid fuel and cannot melt down.

As I wrote last November, Thor is combining thorium with plutonium, a combination known as thorium MOX (mixed-oxide). By mixing the two, the nuclear industry could use plutonium "waste" from existing reactors as fuel, rather than spending large sums of money to safely store plutonium. The nuclear industry today burns uranium-plutonium MOX at some conventional reactors.

"Thor Energy pointed out that thorium-plutonium fuels therefore provide a new option for reducing civil and military plutonium stocks," WNN wrote.

Thorium can work in conventional solid-fueled reactors, although some nuclear experts say that alternative designs such as liquid reactors optimize its benefits. WNN noted that the Thor test "will provide unique information necessary for qualifying this new fuel for commercial use in current reactors." The test will run for four years.

Backers of the Halden experiment include conventional nuclear company Westinghouse, the U.S. division of Japan's Toshiba. A South African company, Steenkampskraal Thorium Ltd., owns 15 percent of Thor. STL is developing a thorium-fueled high temperature reactor known as a pebble bed reactor.

Thor is part of Scatec AS, a privately held Norwegian clean energy technology incubator.

Photos from Thor Energy

Want to know more about thorium and alternative nuclear? Check out these stories, and also click on the archive link below the list:

— By on June 26, 2013, 10:41 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure