Swiss startup believes this forgotten element is the key to safe nuclear energy


Nuclear energy is undergoing a renaissance. Across Europe, governments are pouring huge amounts of money into new power plants while startups are busily working on smaller, modular alternatives. 

Most of these plants rely on uranium, the radioactive metal that fuelled the atomic age (and contributed to a couple of catastrophic meltdowns). However, Swiss startup Transmutex wants to reinvent nuclear energy using a lesser-known element called thorium. 

Uranium’s forgotten cousin

Thorium is a lead-like metal that is mildly reactive, but four times more abundant than uranium and a lot safer to handle.

However, thorium is a fissionable material but not a fissile one, meaning that it cannot undergo nuclear fission — the splitting of atomic nuclei which releases the energy used for electricity generation. 

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In a conventional nuclear power plant, heat is produced when neutrons collide with a fissionable material like uranium. As the atoms split, they release energy and more neutrons, resulting in a chain reaction which makes the nuclear power plant self-sustaining — as more atoms split it creates more heat which splits more atoms.  

However, this process produces a lot of plutonium waste, which takes 300,000 years to decay and is incredibly difficult to store safely. It can also be used to make atomic bombs if it ends up in the wrong hands.