The thorium fuel cycle is a nuclear fuel cycle that uses the naturally abundant isotope of thorium, 232Th, as the fertile material. In the reactor, 232Th is transmuted into the fissile artificial uranium isotope 233U which is the nuclear fuel. Unlike natural uranium, natural thorium contains only trace amounts of fissile material (such as 231Th), which are insufficient to initiate a nuclear chain reaction. Additional fissile material or another neutron source are necessary to initiate the fuel cycle. In a thorium-fueled reactor, 232Th absorbs neutrons eventually to produce 233U. This parallels the process in uranium reactors whereby fertile 238U absorbs neutrons to form fissile 239Pu. Depending on the design of the reactor and fuel cycle, the 233U generated either fissions in situ or is chemically separated from the used nuclear fuel and formed into new nuclear fuel.
The thorium fuel cycle claims several potential advantages over a uranium fuel cycle, including thorium's greater abundance, superior physical and nuclear properties, better resistance to nuclear weapons proliferation and reduced plutonium and actinide production.
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