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EMMA: After Uranium Fission Comes... Thorium?

Very interesting Daily Mail article about Britain's Electron Model of Many Applications (EMMA) ring accelerator, and its potential in both energy generation and medicine:

"One ton of thorium can produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium, or 3.5 million tons of coal, and the thorium deposits that have already been identified would meet the entire world's energy needs for at least 10,000 years. Unlike uranium, it's easy and cheap to refine, and it's far less toxic. Happily, it produces energy without producing any carbon dioxide: so an economy that ran on thorium power would have virtually no carbon footprint.

Better still, a thorium reactor would be incapable of having a meltdown, and would generate only 0.6 per cent of the radioactive waste of a conventional nuclear plant. It could even be adapted to 'burn' existing, stockpiled uranium waste in its core, thus enormously reducing its radioactive half-life and toxicity."

The technical catch?

Particle accelerators like the "'non-scaling, fixed-field, alternating-gradient' (NS-FFAG)" EMMA must continue to become better, smaller, and cheaper - because without those accelerators working, a Thorium reactor can't run and starts to cool off.

That's the good news, of course. In a Fukushima style disaster, the reactor just turns off.

It's also the bad news. Improved accelerators that combine small size and reliability are not a trivial technical advance. Until we really try, it will be hard to even know where the alligators are, let alone get it down to an economical level. It's wise to expect some unexpected difficulties along the way, as well as unexpected costs, and not see this as some kind of near-term fix. Or even a certain fix, in any time frame.

The ray of light? A 400 MeV relative called "Pamela" (Particle Accelerator for Medical Applications) promises new possibilities in treating heretofore untreatable cancers, and the demographics of cancer and aging are likely to make Pamela-style accelerators reasonably popular public projects. As long as a steady trickle of good news results, and the setbacks are manageable, a path is laid for continued improvement in the underlying technology.

This is definitely one of those technologies we'd all love to see succeed.

See also the Thorium Energy Amplifier Association's 2010 report, "Toward an Alternative Nuclear Future" [PDF].

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