The Daily Telegraph has just taken thorium wowserism to a whole new level. According to the title of an article penned by International Business Editor Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Obama could kill fossil fuels overnight with a nuclear dash for thorium. Continuing in the same vein, the byline assures us that,
If Barack Obama were to marshal America’s vast scientific and strategic resources behind a new Manhattan Project, he might reasonably hope to reinvent the global energy landscape and sketch an end to our dependence on fossil fuels within three to five years.
And how is this prodigious feat to be accomplished? Via none other than Nobel laureate Dr. Carlo Rubbia’s really bad idea for building accelerator-driven thorium reactors. It would seem that Dr. Rubbia has assured the credulous Telegraph editor that, “a tonne of the silvery metal produces as much energy as 200 tonnes of uranium.” This egregious whopper is based on nothing more complicated than a comparison of apples and oranges. Thorium by itself cannot power a nuclear reactor. It must first be converted into the isotope uranium 233 via absorption of a neutron. Natural uranium, on the other hand, can be used directly in reactors, because 0.7 percent of it consists of the fissile isotope uranium 235. In other words, Rubbia is comparing the energy potential of thorium after it has been converted to U233 with the energy potential of only the U235 in natural uranium. The obvious objection to this absurd comparison is that the rest of natural uranium is made up mostly of the isotope U238, which can also absorb a neutron to produce plutonium 239, which, like U233, can power nuclear reactors. In other words, if we compare apples to apples, that is, thorium after it has been converted to U233 with U238 after it has been converted to Pu239, the potential energy content of thorium and uranium is about equal.
As it happens, the really bad news in the Telegraph article is that,
The Norwegian group Aker Solutions has bought Dr. Rubbia’s patent for an accelerator-driven sub-critical reactor, and is working on his design for a thorium version at its UK operation.
In fact, Aker has already completed a conceptual design for a power plant. According to Aker project manager Victoria Ashley, the group needs a paltry $3 million, give or take, to build the first one, and another $150 million for the test phase to follow. Why is that disturbing news? Because the U233 produced in these wonderful new reactors will be ideal for producing nuclear weapons.
In fact, it will be even better than the “traditional” bomb materials; highly enriched uranium (HEU) and weapons grade plutonium. The explosion of a nuclear device is produced by assembling a highly supercritical mass of fissile material, and then introducing a source of neutrons at just the right moment, setting off a runaway chain reaction. The problem with plutonium is that it has the bad habit of occasionally fissioning spontaneously. This releases neutrons. If such a stray neutron were to happen along just as the bomb material became critical, it would set off a premature chain reaction, causing the device to “fizzle.” As a result, plutonium weapons must rely on a complicated implosion process to achieve supercriticality before the stray neutrons can do their dirty work. Implosion weapons are much more technologically challenging to build than the gun-assembled types that can be used with HEU. In these, one subcritical mass is simply shot into another. However, the required mass of HEU is much larger than the amount of plutonium needed in an implosion-assembled weapon. As it happens, the amount of U233 sufficient to build a nuclear device is about the same as the amount of plutonium, but spontaneous fission is not a problem in U233. In other words, it combines the plutonium advantage of requiring a much smaller amount of material, and the HEU advantage of being usable in gun-assembled weapons.
Why, then, you might ask, are we even giving Rubbia’s idea a second thought? Because of people like Professor Egil Lillestol, who, Evans-Pritchard helpfully informs us, is “a world authority on the thorium fuel cycle at CERN.” According to Lillestol,
It is almost impossible to make nuclear weapons out of thorium because it is too difficult to handle. It wouldn’t be worth trying.
Rubbia has made similar statements, based on the same “logic.” The rationalization for the claim that U233 is “too difficult to handle” is the supposed presence of U232, an isotope of uranium with a half-life of about 69 years, one of whose daughters (elements in its decay chain) emits a highly energetic and penetrating, and hence deadly, gamma ray. In fact, avoiding the production of U232 in accelerator-driven reactors would be a piece of cake. Rubbia and Lillestol must know this, making it all the more incomprehensible that they dare to foist such whoppers on unsuspecting newspaper editors.
Only one neutron absorption is needed for the production of U233 from naturally occurring Th232. Two are needed to produce U232. Thus, one way to keep the level of U232 within manageable levels is to simply extract the U233 before much U232 has a chance to form. However, there’s an even easier way. Very energetic neutrons, with energies above a threshold of around 6 million electron volts, are necessary to produce U232. Not many fission neutrons have that much energy, and slowing down the ones that do is simple. Simply pass them through a “moderator” rich in hydrogen or some other light element. Think of billiard balls. If one of them going at a good clip hits another dead on, it stops, imparting its energy to the second ball. Neutrons and the proton nuclei of hydrogen atoms have nearly the same mass, so the same thing can happen when they collide. A fast neutron will typically lose a large fraction of its energy in such a collision. In other words, the “secret” of avoiding the production of dangerous levels of U232 is as simple as passing the neutrons through a layer of hydrogen-rich material such as paraffin before allowing them to interact with the thorium. All this should hardly come as a surprise to people like Rubbia and Lillestol. It’s been old hat in the literature for a long time. For a more detailed treatment, see, for example, U-232 and the Proliferation-Resistance of U-233 in Spent Fuel, a paper that appeared in the journal Science and Global Security back in 2001.
In other words, the idea that “it is almost impossible to make nuclear weapons out of thorium” is a pipe dream. That does not necessarily mean that thorium technology should be rejected root and branch. It will always be necessary to exercise extreme care to insure that U233 isn’t diverted for illicit purposes. However, managing the risk will be considerably easier in “conventional” thorium breeders, which rely on assembling a critical mass to supply the necessary source of neutrons. Such reactors have already been built and successfully operated for years. The U233 they produce will always be mixed with highly radioactive fission products, and can also be “denatured” by mixing it with U238, from which it cannot be separated using simple chemistry. Such reactors would produce few of the transuranic actinides that are the main culprits in nuclear waste, potentially requiring it to be stored securely for millennia. They could also consume the actinides produced in the current generation of reactors, so that the remaining waste could potentially become less radioactive than the original uranium ore in a few hundred years, instead of many thousands.
If, on the other hand, the accelerators necessary to provide the neutron source for Dr. Rubbia’s subcritical facilities were to become readily available, they would be much easier to hide than conventional reactors, could be configured to produce U233 with almost no U232 contamination, and with much less radioactive fission product contamination. In other words, they would constitute an unacceptable risk for the proliferation of nuclear weapons. One must hope that the world will wake up in time to recognize the threat.