There's a growing movement to make nuclear power safer, more efficient and less weapons-prone by replacing today's uranium fuel with another element, thorium.
And within the thorium push, there are different technological ideas for how to deploy. One camp says that the best way to optimize thorium's many advantages is to put it into liquid form in a molten salt reactor (MSR), which is a radically different design compared to today's solid fueled reactors.
Some thorium pragmatists, however, advocate another step that would get thorium onto the power scene sooner: Put it into existing reactors.
That's the message coming from the University of Cambridge in England, where PhD candidate Ben Lindley has discovered another potential advantage: Reactor operators could burn a thorium fuel that is mixed with plutonium and thus would provide a useful way to eliminate troubling nuclear waste.
Fabricators can already mix uranium with plutonium into a fuel called "MOX" (mixed oxide), which France uses in some of its nuclear reactors.
But according to Lindley, a thorium-plutonium mix could power reactors almost forever in a reusable fuel cycle, a huge improvement over the limited number of years that a mixed uranium-plutonium fuel lasts. For more on why this is true, see my Weinberg blog.
Lindley made the discovery while a masters student at Cambridge, under senior lecturer Geoff Parks.
There's one main catch: Those conventional reactors would work best if they were altered. Lindley recommends putting the mixed thorium fuel into conventional reactors that use less water than today's reactors - water serves as a coolant and also as a "moderator" that slows down neutrons and thus facilitates nuclear reactions.
Hitachi, Toshiba, Mitsubishi and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency all have designs for "reduced-moderation water reactors", and Toshiba's Westinghouse has shown interest in Lindley's ideas.