Interview-Farah-Hariri-short

  • Transmutation: a solution for nuclear waste management?

  • Dr Farah Hariri - PhD in nuclear physics - has dedicated her research to nuclear fusion and alternative source of nuclear fuel for 5 years.

    She is currently Sernior Fellow Physicist at CERN in Switzerland, a member of International Thorium Energy Committee and a coordinator of energy transition for France's En Marche movement.

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    4-minute read

  • Alternative nuclear fuels such as thorium could revolutionise not only how we produce energy but also how we deal with nuclear waste. That’s the view of Dr Farah Hariri, a member of International Thorium Energy Committee (iThEC) and a coordinator of energy transition for France’s En Marche movement. 

     

     

     

    “Climate change is a serious global problem, and as awareness increases, so does the demand for clean energy,” said Dr Hariri. “In addition, and regardless of whether government policy is pro- or anti-nuclear, we also have the challenge of dealing with existing nuclear waste. Approaches using thorium hold great promise in dealing with nuclear waste, and could also contribute to our future clean energy mix.”

     

    Unlike uranium, thorium is not fissile. It cannot lead to a runaway chain-reaction. And unlike a conventional fission reactor, a thorium cycle reactor produces fewer long-lived isotopes, making thorium a safer and more ecologically friendly fuel.

     

    There are various ways that thorium could be used in fission reactors. One is in molten salt reactors (MSRs), one of six designs supported by the Generation IV International Forum (GIF). MSRs promise less waste at lower toxicity, better safety margins, and a way of dealing with existing nuclear waste by breaking it down, transmuting it, in the reactor vessel. 

     

    “Thorium could take us away from the plutonium economy,” said Dr Hariri.

     

    Transmuting waste into fuel

     

    Another approach, promoted by iThEC, is the use of thorium in accelerator-driven systems,(ADS), which transmute waste into fuel. This idea was pioneered and championed at CERN, where Dr Hariri currently works, by Nobel-Prize winner and former CERN Director-General Carlo Rubbia.

     

    Current European research into ADS is spearheaded by the Belgian Multi-purpose hYbrid Research Reactor for High-tech Applications (MYRRHA). “Such technologies, if taken on board by industry, could help with nuclear waste elimination and reducing the risks and costs of transporting radioactive material,” said Dr. Hariri.

     

    Alternative to geological disposal

     

    In Dr Hariri’s view, transmutation has not received the attention it deserves as a potential solution to the challenge of nuclear waste management. “A lot of funding has gone into research into geological disposal, with little investment in transmutation,” she said.

     

    “In my view, this is wrong, since such technologies promise not only a way to break down existing waste, but could also make an important contribution to sustainable energy supply.”

     

    Reluctance to support such research is short- sighted, said Dr Hariri. “We should be exploring all the options for transmutation as an alternative, or complementary approach, to geological repositories.”

     

    Clean energy 

     

    Clean energy is a powerful argument in favour of thorium. With its ability to transmute nuclear waste, thorium is more than just an alternative to uranium and plutonium. “It’s an approach that better respects ecology,” said Dr Hariri.

     

    Renewable energy is making great strides in the global energy mix. But most of our energy still comes from non-renewable sources, and that is a pressing concern.

     

    “More time and research are needed to develop solutions such as thorium to an industrial level,” said Dr Hariri. “Unfortunately, given the urgent challenge of climate change, we don’t have much time. We should therefore be using the best possible technological combinations that we have in hand today to reduce our carbon footprint, while also investing for the future”.

     

    Dr Hariri advocates a broad approach, pursuing the cleaner and safer nuclear fission opportunities offered by thorium, alongside the development of renewables and nuclear fusion.

     

    “There are many challenges ahead with thorium and fusion, not least commercial viability, but without research, we’ll never get there. Renewables are an important part of the equation, but they have their own challenges.

     

    “The pragmatic solution to a successful energy future relies on a broad mix, including both nuclear and renewables.”

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