Thinking About Thorium by Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., President of CCNR, September 16 2012 On CBC’s “Quirks and Quarks” radio program aired on Saturday, September 15, 2012, there was an enthusiastic endorsement of “thorium reactors” as a nearly miraculous form of nuclear energy that will avoid all of the major problems now associated with uranium-based nuclear power.
I have been asked by several people to give my own personal opinion of this prospect, and accordingly have written the following:
When nuclear power was first presented to a credulous public, fully conditioned to respect science and admire scientists, people were quick to believe that nuclear power was safe, clean, cheap and inexhaustible — just because scientists said so. It was also said that “peaceful” nuclear power had nothing whatsoever to do with atomic bombs and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It took decades for people to realize that these are all lies.
I can’t believe that people are now so eager to swallow the hype about thorium with all its over-the-top claims of being safe, clean, cheap, inexhaustible, unrelated to nuclear weapons, and even a miraculous way of solving the nuclear waste problems created by the previous generation of — what? — safe, clean, cheap, inexhaustible, unrelated to nuclear weapons, nuclear reactors.
As the old saying goes, “once burned, twice shy”. Or more explicitly, “Fool me once, same on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
If thorium was such a good idea then its promoters would be more willing to tell
the truth rather than to spin fairy tales about it. Fairy Tale #1. ”Thorium is a nuclear fuel.”
False. Thorium is NOT a nuclear fuel. Fill the interior of ANY nuclear reactor
with fuel assemblies made of thorium, and absolutely nothing will happen.
Because thorium is not a “fissile” material — it cannot sustain a nuclear chain
reaction, no matter what.
The truth is that uranium-233 is a fissile material that can be used either as fuel
for a nuclear reactor or as the explosive material in a nuclear weapon. (The USAexploded an atomic bomb made from uranium-233 more than half a century ago,
But uranium-233 does not exist in the natural world. It can only be created by
bombarding thorium-232 with neutrons. When a thorium-232 atom absorbs a
neutron it becomes transmuted into a uranium-233 atom.
So the bottom line is that thorium (meaning thorium-232) is not a nuclear fuel nor
is it a nuclear explosive, but it can be used as a raw material to produce uranium-
233 which is both a nuclear fuel and a nuclear explosive.
It seems to me that if thorium proponents want to be believed, they should
explain these simple facts to people right away instead of “preying on their
ignorance” by telling them untruths.
Fairy Tale #2. ”The use of thorium as a “nuclear fuel” [sic] has nothing to
do with nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive materials.”
This is wrong in several ways.
As already mentioned, thorium has to be converted into uranium-233 before can be used as a nuclear fuel — so already we have a link with nuclear weapons.
While uranium-233 does have some disadvantages as a nuclear explosive
material (mainly due to the presence of gamma radiation) it also has some
terrific advantages for the would-be bomb-maker.
The main advantage is that uranium-233 is 100% enriched whereas naturallyoccurring uranium-235 is NEVER 100% enriched. The higher the degree of
enrichment, the more powerful the nuclear explosive.
But nuclear weapons are involved at the very BEGINNING of thorium reactors,
because you cannot get the thorium reactor started without mixing the thorium
with some weapons-explosive material — either plutonium or highly enriched
uranium. That means that you cannot even START using thorium for energy
unless you first either (1) separate plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel using
reprocessing technology, as North Korea has done for example (and used the
plutonium in nuclear weapons), or (2) produced highly enriched uranium in a
uranium enrichment facility as Iran has done, much to the consternation of the rest of the world. Fairy Tale #3, 4, 5, … A thorium reactor cannot undergo a catastrophic
accident, will not produce very much nuclear waste, will reduce the
“storage time” from millions of years to hundreds of years, etc, etc.
These are all profoundly misleading exaggerations. Any bomb dropped on a
thorium reactor will result in a catastrophic accident. Thorium reactors produce
high-level radioactive waste just like today’s reactors, and although the
proportions of various radio- nuclides may be substantially different, there is NO
WAY that a thorium reactor will eliminate all radioactive elements having halflives measured in the tens of thousands of years.
Thorium is an old idea that has been promoted many times in the past. In 1977,
Atomic Energy of Canada Limited urged the Canadian government to invest
billions of dollars in thorium reprocessing technology of nightmarish proportions.
This is documented on the CCNR web site –
The moral of this story is: don’t be too eager to buy a pig in a poke, especially