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Turning Japan's nuclear past into its future

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Inspiration. TTS chief engineer Moto-yasu Kinoshita displays a Chinese language version of Alvin Weinberg's autobiography at a Shanghai thorium conference last November. Weinberg led the team that built a molten salt reactor in the U.S. in the 1960s.

One of the biggest problems associated with nuclear power is what to do with the waste - the radioactive leftovers like plutonium that live on posing health and weapons risks.

But amid today's broad social zeitgeist of sustainability and recycling, shouldn't there be a use for the stuff?

Yes there should, says one small Tokyo-based company. If you build entirely different and better nuclear reactors than those that operate today, you can burn waste as fuel.

The company, Thorium Tech Solution (TTS), wants to combine the plutonium and other "actinides" from Japan's 50-some reactors into liquid that would also contain thorium, the alternative to today's uranium fuel that many people believe offers safety, cost, efficiency and anti-weapons advantages.

TTS' design is called a liquid molten salt reactor (MSR), and is based on U.S. government work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Oak Ridge built an MSR in the 1960s before President Richard Nixon cancelled the project in favor of solid fuel reactors that leave waste such as plutonium - desirable for weapons in the Cold War.

MSR fuel circulates at much higher temperatures than the levels at which uranium burns in conventional solid fuel reactors. That increases the efficiency of the generating process. The liquid design also underpins many safety features. Among them: The reactor cannot melt down.

That should appeal in Japan, which shut down all but two of its 50-some reactors following meltdowns at its Fukushima Daiichi power plant two years ago. Nuclear had provided 30 percent of the country's electricity. Japan is paying high economic and environmental costs to compensate.

TTS' reactor will compete against solid fuel "fast reactors" that also burn waste. And the company faces challenges including funding. With the right backing, this idea should flow.

Photo by Mark Halper

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— By on March 25, 2013, 8:58 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