Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Harry Reid, D-Nev., are sponsoring legislation that would pave the way for thorium nuclear-fuel reactors in the United States.

The bill, introduced in Congress this past week, could also potentially benefit two companies in Utah and Virginia.

Passage of the so-called Thorium Energy Independence and Security Act of 2008 would provide $250 million over five years to create a new oversight arm under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Department of Energy. The legislation calls for the eventual regulation of domestic thorium nuclear-power generation.

Hatch said it's time government had a regulatory structure to accommodate this "new generation" of nuclear power that has been gaining in popularity around the world.

Reid and Hatch have been at odds in recent years over a proposal to store nuclear waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. Hatch has supported the idea of storing waste there, while Reid has been a vocal opponent of the proposal.

"Given the political realities of Yucca Mountain, Congress needs to find real alternative solutions to the dilemma of storing our nation's spent nuclear fuels. This Hatch-Reid Thorium bill is a good first step in that direction," Hatch said Friday in an e-mail.

The bill's introduction came in the same week as a Senate vote in favor of a "nuclear cooperation agreement" that would allow U.S. companies to deal in India's burgeoning nuclear market. According to the World Nuclear Association, India has been developing a nuclear-fuel cycle to exploit its vast reserves of thorium.

Seth Grae, president and chief executive officer of Virginia-based Thorium Power Ltd. said in a news release that Hatch and Reid's thorium bill "will encourage the use of thorium-based fuels in other countries, helping to reinforce the benefits of enhanced proliferation-resistance and improved safety to energy programs of other nations."

Hatch on Thursday touted thorium as lasting about three times longer than conventional nuclear fuel, thereby cutting the volume of spent nuclear-fuel waste. The naturally-occurring radioactive metal is also regarded as a means of reducing the possibility that a weapons-grade material could be derived from its use as an energy source.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that thorium is found in virtually all rock, soil and water and consequently in plants and animals. Monazite, thorite and thorianite are minerals that are rich in thorium, described as a soft, silvery white metal.

Utah-based Thorium Energy Inc. has claims to what it calls the richest high-grade thorium reserves in the United States, with 68 resource claims on about 20 acres each in the Lemhi Pass region on the border between Idaho and Montana. Company spokesman Jack Lifton praised the Hatch bill as a step toward a "safe, secure and independent energy future."

Thorium Power's Grae said Hatch and Reid's bill would "strengthen American technology and American business to compete in the global marketplace."

Thorium Power formed in 1992 to "develop and deploy" nuclear-fuel designs by Alvin Radkowsky, with the goal of not producing weapons-suitable plutonium as a waste byproduct. In 2007, the publicly-traded company announced an alliance with Russian government-owned Red Star.

Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius discovered thorium in 1828, naming the new element after Thor, the Norse god of thunder and weather, according to the EPA. The element's history of practical uses include X-rays, ceramic glazes and lantern mantels.

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