Green Room

Nuclear Weapons for the Masses!

posted at 2:57 pm on August 31, 2010 by

Glenn Reynolds tends to get hyped on certain kinds of high-tech. His latest “faster please” is thorium reactors.

And yeah, there’s a lot to like about them. But there’s a really huge gotcha which is enough to kill the idea stone dead.

Thorium reactors use natural thorium, which is isotope 232. There are a lot of neutrons running around in there; it’s how reactors work. If an atom of thorium 232 absorbs a neutron, it becomes isotope 233. Some will fission, but some won’t.

Thorium 233 beta decays (HL 22 minutes) to proactinium 233, which beta decays (HL 27 days) to uranium 233.

Uranium 233 is fissionable, and you can make bombs out of it. And the best part of all is that it can be purified chemically out of the spent fuel of the thorium reactor. You don’t have to mess around with gas diffusion or centrifuges.

If, as some propose, there’s a thorium reactor buried in every backyard, you could face the possibility of pretty much any dedicated extremist being able to build nuclear weapons.

Is that a “faster please”?

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I’m seeing a puzzling disconnection here. According to the article, the US after WW2 declined to go to the thorium technology, because they had an urgent need for bomb production. Yet now we are concerned about wide access to thorium reactors — because we can make bombs from the spent fuel?

Or think of it this way. If it were really that easy to get a uranium bomb, why wouldn’t Iran be doing it that way? They would truly have a win-win situation of abundant nuclear power and plenty of raw material for bombs, much more refined much more quickly than what they are doing now.

So I can see the risk of uranium proliferation in theory, but something tells me there is a catch somewhere — perhaps the engineering (to make a U-233 bomb) is much more difficult than one might suppose?

jwolf on August 31, 2010 at 3:15 PM

From what I’m reading it seems to me the issue isn’t Thorium per-se (although clearly the tech needs a buncha $$$ to get going) it’s the whole crazy insane-I just don’t get it-concept that we want nuke plants of any type scattered around like weeds. I’m all for nuke energy (killed by the greens because they like coal better I guess) but small ones a mile down the road seems a bit strange.

WitchDoctor on August 31, 2010 at 3:27 PM

I was suspicious when I read the article touting the awesomeness of thorium technology, but begging the government to get it started. Now I see the catch!

joe_doufu on August 31, 2010 at 3:31 PM

According to the Wikipedia article, yes — you can chemically separate the fissile Uranium, but no — it’s not all that easy, it’s contaminated with more dangerous Uranium, you’ll need more of it because it is less efficient in bombs, and you have to have sophisticated processing facilities because you can’t just work with it in glove boxes.

A country the size of India can do it because they’ve got infrastructure….I don’t think someone snagging a single core out of a local reactor is going to get very far.

cthulhu on August 31, 2010 at 4:13 PM

If, as some propose, there’s a thorium reactor buried in every backyard, you could face the possibility of pretty much any dedicated extremist being able to build nuclear weapons.

Although the presence of 232U makes it a challenge, 233U can be used in fission weapons, but this has been done only occasionally. The United States first tested 233U as part of a bomb core in Operation Teapot in 1955. However, unlike plutonium, 233U can be easily denatured by mixing it with natural or depleted uranium. Another option is to judiciously mix thorium fuels with small amounts of natural or depleted uranium during fabrication to ensure that 233U concentrations at the end of cycle are acceptably low.

It is, therefore, paramount that the evolving global thorium fuel cycle (including fuel conditioning and recycling operations) incorporate the latest in safeguards and other proliferation-resistant design features so that the thorium fuel cycle complements the uranium fuel cycle and enhances the long-term global sustainability of nuclear energy.

Fuel Cells, such as the Bloom Box might have a better chance to run your home than a Thorium Reactor.

BDU-33 on August 31, 2010 at 7:35 PM

BDU-33, if you “denature” the thorium with controlled amounts of U-238, will the thorium fission cycle work at all?

Steven Den Beste on August 31, 2010 at 9:17 PM

There is no problem because we have the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty which has been very successful at keeping countries that don’t want nuclear weapons from acquiring them.

deadman on August 31, 2010 at 10:35 PM

Using that logic, we’ll never build a space elevator (assuming the engineering problems are solved) because terrorists might sabotage it and wrap the Earth in a giant carbon nanotube nightmare.

Asher on September 1, 2010 at 2:30 PM

Really, as if not building the plants in the U.S. will prevent it from being done elsewhere. The U.S. has neither a monopoly on the thorium ore nor on nuclear engineers.

agmartin on September 1, 2010 at 5:58 PM

Using that logic, we’ll never build a space elevator (assuming the engineering problems are solved) because terrorists might sabotage it and wrap the Earth in a giant carbon nanotube nightmare.

And that is exactly what will happen as sure as night follows day. We’d be better off doing project Orion and letting the fallout drift into the Caribbean.

SunSword on September 2, 2010 at 6:00 PM

The U232, which will be a “contaminate” in any U233 bred from Thorium, is a strong gamma emitter. That precludes fabrication and assembly using a glove box with only light shielding, instead requiring remote manipulation.

That kicks the resources required up to government sponsored, terrorists in a cave aren’t going to be able to do this.

Thorium reactors are typically thermal spectrum breeders, adding U238 to the fuel mix, means breeding Pu239, some of which will be bred into Pu240, which creates really nasty problems when you try to make a bomb with it present. It doesn’t present problems as part of the fuel mix.

Most of the Thorium advocates are partial to Molten Salt Reactors, and want moderate sized units because they could be factory mass produced, bringing the costs down.

LarryD on September 3, 2010 at 6:04 PM