Scientists improve process that could make nuclear power eco-friendly

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Nuclear power and environmentally friendly are two terms that don’t usually go hand-in-hand. Scientists is Russia however say they have improved the technology which allows these powerful reactors to make energy from the element thorium. Doing so may make it possible to create nuclear energy without producing harmful nuclear waste.

The team from Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) and Ozersk Technological Institute say this less radioactive element is much safer than the classic nuclear processes based on uranium and plutonium. The improved process focuses on extracting thorium and other rare earth elements (REEs) from a monazite concentrate. These concentrates hold a collection of minerals including thorium, uranium, phosphate, and rare metal oxides.

The Russian researchers report their work has optimized the mechanics behind extracting and then grinding these elements into a solution. Once the new process is complete and the elements are purified, researchers say 90 percent of the uranium and thorium and 100 percent of the REEs are freed from the monazite.

The future of nuclear power?

Study authors say this is particularly important because thorium is a resource many countries can take advantage of without many of the fears that come with nuclear pollution.

“Unlike uranium mineral products, the mineral commodities of thorium are found in abundance both in the Russian Federation and all over the world. A shift to the thorium-uranium cycle would secure the environmentally friendly development of the nuclear industry because this technology does not lead to the accumulation of nuclear waste,” Prof. Ivan Tananaev of FEFU says in a media release.

“Moreover, as it claimed in scientific papers, with thorium-based fuel elements adoption, the nuclear core can be reduced by two to three times with no losses in the energy output. Also, according to this scenario, the reactor can be operated continuously for an estimated 50 years without fuel reloading.”

The team adds that this breakthrough could mean major changes for nations like Russia, who are looking to modernize their economies. Not only does thorium offer a cleaner option for the nuclear industry, the study finds the element may have other benefits too. Those include making use of other REEs extracted from the monazite processing and using the phosphate as a fertilizer in agriculture work.

The study appears in the journal Energies.