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Thorium Fuel Has Proliferation Risk

timothy posted about 2 years ago | from the but-lokium-has-its-own-risks dept.

Science 239

Capt.Albatross writes "Thorium has attracted interest as a potentially safer fuel for nuclear power generation. In part, this has been because of the absence of a route to nuclear weapons, but a group of British scientists have identified a path that leads to uranium-233 via protactinium-233 from irradiated thorium. The protactinium separation could possibly be done with standard lab equipment, which would allow it to be done covertly, and deliver the minimum of U233 required for a weapon in less than a year. The full article is in Nature, but paywalled."

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What does this have to do with Linux? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42203707)

Or FOSS in general, for that matter? I'm confused.

Re:What does this have to do with Linux? (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42203899)

News for nerds, stuff that matters. Not news for zealots, stuff that might matter.

Mind you, they occasionally fail at the former, but this isn't one of those cases. It's news for nerds, and it matters.

It has a lot to do with UK Green Troughing (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204141)

This is another Green puff piece in the Watermellon Nature, in which you can now not believe one word

MFG, omb

Re:What does this have to do with Linux? (4, Insightful)

kelemvor4 (1980226) | about 2 years ago | (#42204391)

News for nerds, stuff that matters. Not news for zealots, stuff that might matter.

Mind you, they occasionally fail at the former, but this isn't one of those cases. It's news for nerds, and it matters.

Yeah, that whole science thing. Not for nerds - amirite?

Re:What does this have to do with Linux? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204443)

And how many proliferation policy wonks hang out here? Nuclear physicists? Answer: none. The masthead might say 'news for nerds, stuff that matters', but nerds really refers to 'computer nerds'. This article falls under the 'stuff that matters' department.

In times past, the slogan really meant 'news for computer nerds, stuff that was interesting to CmdrTaco'. Now, it's 'occasional news for computer news, frequent news for tech dilettantes, and news for militant anti-science xenophobes'.

Re:What does this have to do with Linux? (0, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204679)

I'm a nerd, and I care about this story as much as I care about the latest discoveries in chair castor design. It's got aspects of science to it, sure, but the most interesting aspects are question of the future power sources and the question of proliferation. That's why half the comments are about Iran. Tell me, is the question of Iranian proliferation more of a 'nerd' question or a 'hot button politics' question?

If you want a slashdot story that gets a lot of comments, look for one with political overtones. Actual true nerd news - a new release of BSD, the IOCCC results, or details on the latest and greatest from the world of CPU design - those stories look like ghost towns, even hours after posting.

So go ahead, pretend this is a story for nerds; go ahead, subsume every hot-button politics story into the 'stuff that matters' category. You're just doing your small part to eat away at the heritage of one of the web's best discussion forums.

So, who is partying (-1, Troll)

Moses48 (1849872) | about 2 years ago | (#42203717)

I believe Ahmadinejad is having a party right now. BYOT. While any sane person will be dissuaded from using it due to MAD, religious fanatics are not as sane.

Re:So, who is partying (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42203823)

You do not need religious just fanatics will do.

Re:So, who is partying (1)

DarkTempes (822722) | about 2 years ago | (#42204147)

No, I think you actually need religious with the whole afterlife thing.

Re:So, who is partying (5, Informative)

dywolf (2673597) | about 2 years ago | (#42203853)

there was always a weapons risk, cause the thorium still goes to U233. The idea they couldnt make bombs from it wasnt really that they couldnt make bombs, but that they couldnt HIDE that they were doing it cause of the facilities needed to convert the thorium into fuel (in reality, how hard is it to bury construction). The ratio of source to fuel is still pretty high though (233:1 !!), so you still need lots of room to store it while it decays naturally. Seems like you'd still want to bury it/hide it (leaving construction tell tales) as just leaving it in a random warehouse to decay would be easily detectable by any radiological sniffers.

So really not much changes with this new information. Except for the fat that letting it decay naturally has fewer toxic byproducts, which seems like a win regardless.

Re:So, who is partying (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204557)

From what i understand, thorium is "easily" obtainable from coal. So, this news is pretty important and changes the landscape quite a bit.

Re:So, who is partying (1)

Creepy (93888) | about 2 years ago | (#42204971)

It is the main source of radiation from coal being burned but coal is not necessarily the best source of it. It is found in granite and in deposits with rare earth elements as well.

Re:So, who is partying (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204091)

I'm not so sure that most of the leaders of these countries are religious fanatics.

From what I see they are often not religious - they may pretend to be religious and use religious fanatics as tools and pawns. But they are in no hurry to die and see Allah- they are having a good time on Earth.

Using nukes would mean the end of the nice life for them, so they'd only do that if they are going to lose that lifestyle anyway. Having nukes makes the USA less likely to back them into such a corner.

Re:So, who is partying (0)

TheCarp (96830) | about 2 years ago | (#42204569)

That is pretty much my assessment. To say that every person who invoked a diety for political reasons is a fanatic is ridiculous. Sure, they appease the fanatics, and probably employ many fanatics, and have a few within their ranks, but, nobody holds power long on ideology alone.

Frankly, toxic US policy is what setup their revolution, which was coopted by the towel heads. Now it is toxic US and Isreali policy which helps keep them there. All the sanctions and saber rattling does little but ensure that they have an external enemy to blame, and to rally the people behind them.

Re:So, who is partying (2)

cheesybagel (670288) | about 2 years ago | (#42204181)

He doesn't need to party. Iran has large Uranium reserves. This is mostly good news for India which has poor Uranium deposits but quite rich Thorium deposits. Considering they are one of the most populous nations in the planet they would stand a lot to gain from Thorium energy research advancing further.

Re:So, who is partying (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204197)

Iran is not irrational: Iraq got invaded. Pakistan did not. Spot the difference.

Nukes are for deterrence. The unspoken issue regarding a nuclear Iran is that it might create a balance of deterrence, where Israel's nuclear arsenal can no longer be used to threaten some nations in the region without the possibility of retaliation.

One reason the above is seldom spoken of is that it isn't a morally supportable position: Why should Israel be wielding this threat and why is deterrence against this threat a good reason to go to war with Iran?

Re:So, who is partying (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204295)

Any evidence Israel is threatening to use their nukes; save only for defense? I somehow doubt they are as it would undermine their position globally.

Re:So, who is partying (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204415)

Are you seriously suggesting Israel would nuke some country offensively? That is not what the nukes are for. The nukes are to be used to obliterate Mecca in case of a WMD attack against Israel. And that is the only thing they are for.

Re:So, who is partying (1)

TFAFalcon (1839122) | about 2 years ago | (#42205205)

Well define offensively? Would they use it as a first strike weapon against one of their neighbors? Probably not.
But what if the Palestinians somehow good enough weapons and training to take out their army? I'm not so sure the Israeli government wouldn't consider nuking them in that case.

We don't have any choice (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42203725)

Thorium is the only thing standing between us and heat death.

Since the paywalled article doesn't tell us how they think others will get past a decay chain that includes gamma emission, which is the usually cited reason for preferring thorium.

Does this increase the risks of Thorium reactors? (1)

Immerman (2627577) | about 2 years ago | (#42204075)

From the sound of it this proliferation chain could be readily accessed by irradiating chunks of thorium with *any* reactor - for example by using thorium instead of lead to shield the core, or perhaps doping the control rods with it. And since thorium is a very common metal available everywhere in the world, often as waste from other mining operations. I don't really see how using it as fuel would increase the proliferation risk substantially. Well, perhaps by allowing third parties to steal partially spent fuel, but I think it's usually the governments we're worried about is it not?

Re:We don't have any choice (1)

rossdee (243626) | about 2 years ago | (#42204299)

"Thorium is the only thing standing between us and heat death."

What about Fusion ?

Thats in the Far future

There is a working fusion reactor only about 8 minutes away.

Re:We don't have any choice (1)

mrbester (200927) | about 2 years ago | (#42204407)

That would be light minutes which is a unit of length not time.

Re:We don't have any choice (4, Insightful)

cheesybagel (670288) | about 2 years ago | (#42204327)

We need to stop bothering about proliferation risks and get concerned about cheap and safe generation of power. Thorium research is useful because it is more plentiful than Uranium in this planet. That is about it. Because of so called proliferation risks nuclear recycling research has been stuck since the 1970s. For all we know we could be separating all the waste with laser separation and burning the actinides in a high temperature nuclear reactor by now. We don't do it because laser separation technology also enables easier separation of Plutonium from the spent fuel for nuclear weapons. Instead the people who want the Plutonium have to use more polluting chemical separation methods such as PUREX. This insanity needs to stop. If the country already has nuclear weapons in its possession why do we need to bother with such concerns? We only reduced nuclear weapon stockpiles due to bilateral treaties. Lack of further technological development is not an obstacle to producing more nuclear weapons for an industrialized nation.

Paywalled? (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42203727)

"The full article is in Nature, but paywalled."

Well, then there is no risk of proliferation.

Re:Paywalled? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204079)

Especially at those rates! Who the hell throws down $18 to read an article?

Re:Paywalled? (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204169)

It's fortunate the open access activists haven't succeeded yet. Let thank these publishers that protect national security by erecting a paywall between taxpayer funded research and the public.

Who Cares? (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42203737)

If global climate change is going to be as bad as some people are saying, then it makes sense to just use the damn thorium. We've been dealing with nuclear weapons for more than 70 years.

stone age (0)

Xicor (2738029) | about 2 years ago | (#42203747)

we should just carpet bomb the country back to the stone age... let the non-religious fanatics leave the country before we do so

Re:stone age (1)

Viol8 (599362) | about 2 years ago | (#42203789)

That would be most of the population. The religious nutters are a small percentage.

Re:stone age (3, Funny)

djsmiley (752149) | about 2 years ago | (#42204259)

And Canada/Mexico doesn't want any of them.

Carpet Bomb Great Britain? (0, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42203829)

That's where the scientists are from..

Although I do get a tingle of schadenfreude at the thought, in the end the Limey Hordes are more like us than they are different from us. We should let them live in peace with their mossy, malformed teeth and nausea-inducing beer. They're mostly harmless.

Re:Carpet Bomb Great Britain? (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42203933)

If you beer isn't nausea-inducing you're not drinking enough... or it's just flavoured water.

Guessing you're American it's probably the latter.

And how very dare you call us mostly harmless!!? Where's my pen...

Scientists! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42203767)

Scientists! They ruin everything.

Weaponized (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42203769)

Anything can become weaponized if you work hard enough. It is the cost of purity that drives the difficulty.

Re:Weaponized (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204697)

Anything can become weaponized if you work hard enough. It is the cost of purity that drives the difficulty.

Bunnies can't.

Re:Weaponized (1)

Freddybear (1805256) | about 2 years ago | (#42204929)

Tell that to the Australians.

Re:Weaponized (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42205305)

Oh, I wouldn't be so sure about that []

I hear the little bunnies can be very deceptive.

oh yeah! great... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42203773)

Just tell terrorists how to turn Thorium into weapons-grade Uranium/Plutonium right here on Slashdot.... well, you're at least saying it's possible.

Re:oh yeah! great... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204371)

Something tells me that terrorists won't go through the trouble. There are much easier ways to create a radiological disaster. I suspect that they already posess materials from the soviet union, industrial / medical theft, hostile nation states and whatnot. I seriously doubt there are any terrorist organizations with the resources required to do what you're suggesting. All those WMDs that Saddam had? There were intelligence agencies from six different countries that said he had them. We didn't find them. Guess where they probably are. They're biding their time until they have significant influence in the UN, better position in global government and enough world wide support for Islam. See Egypt? That's just the beginning.

So...much ado about not much (5, Informative)

dywolf (2673597) | about 2 years ago | (#42203795)

Still seems lower than the traditional route. And (FTA) instead of using a special facility to directly bombard/convert the thorium into fissible U233 in a short time, they just let the stuff sit for a month and decay into U233 naturally. And the article states that using the wait-to-decay method, theres also fewer/less radiotoxic byproduct, so it seems like a cheaper/safer method to start with.

They still turn it into U233, the bomb stuff. just a difference in timescale, facility and method. So there was always a weapon risk.

the whole "low prolfieration" thing just came from theoretically being able to spot the facilities doing the converting...though I think leaving the stuff sitting around and waiting for it to decay would also be theoretically somewhat simple to detect.

All in all, it seems like waiting for it to decay naturally is better, unless the ratio of fissible material is significantly worse, sufficient to outweigh the fewer toxic byproducts thing..

Re:So...much ado about not much (2)

Ceriel Nosforit (682174) | about 2 years ago | (#42203881)

A thorium reactor should generate a lot of radium, which can be detected, and easily kill anyone who isn't familiar with ventilation.

Re:So...much ado about not much (2)

mapsjanhere (1130359) | about 2 years ago | (#42203991)

Radium (88 Ra) is a solid and shouldn't be affected by ventilation. Do you mean Radon (86 Rn)?

Re:So...much ado about not much (4, Informative)

ShanghaiBill (739463) | about 2 years ago | (#42204145)

Radium (88 Ra) is a solid and shouldn't be affected by ventilation. Do you mean Radon (86 Rn)?

Radium decays into radon. If you have a chunk of radium in a room, the radon gas will build up without ventilation.


Re:So...much ado about not much (5, Funny)

i kan reed (749298) | about 2 years ago | (#42203935)

I'm not sure how a lead box would be easy to detect. To get bomb level amounts would only take the space of a undergarments drawer.

Disclaimer: do not keep fissile materials in your undergarments drawer.

Re:So...much ado about not much (5, Funny)

RandomFactor (22447) | about 2 years ago | (#42204135)

Disclaimer: do not keep fissile materials in your undergarments drawer.

Don't you think you should have mentioned that FIRST?

Re:So...much ado about not much (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204757)

I don't store fissile materials in my undergarments drawer. I chose to store them in my codpiece.

Sanctions (5, Funny)

jbeaupre (752124) | about 2 years ago | (#42203799)

If the UK gets the U-233 bomb, next thing you know they will be threatening their rich, oil producing neighbor Norway. Norway will restart heavy water production for their nuclear program. France will increase their stockpiles (and make more nuclear weapons). The Germans will opt for chemical weapons. Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg will offer Russia and the US military bases.

And god forbid if the Irish get ahold of a nuke covertly from the British! They'll turn Iceland into a burnt wasteland.

Time to freeze British financial transactions until they give up their nuclear research. Time to end the menace before it all gets out of control.

Re:Sanctions (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42203911)


Re:Sanctions (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42203977)



Re:Sanctions (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42203983)


You are not bright.

Re:Sanctions (1)

mrbester (200927) | about 2 years ago | (#42204463)

Wot no link to UK being an oil-producing nation as well?

Re:Sanctions (1)

Jeremy Erwin (2054) | about 2 years ago | (#42204903)

that's Scotland. They'll be going away soon. [] , leaving England with only pain, misery, and despair.

Re:Sanctions (1)

aliquis (678370) | about 2 years ago | (#42205081)

Scotland wants to leave UK.

(Hey, maybe that's a reason to build nukes?)

Re:Sanctions (1)

RivenAleem (1590553) | about 2 years ago | (#42204253)

Haha, you had me up until when you said the Irish would get a hold of a nuke from the British. Don't you know that the British are the people we're most likely to want to nuke?

Nice try!

Disclaimer: I have no intention of ever nuking Britain, or Iceland for that matter.

Re:Sanctions (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204635)

Disclaimer: I have no intention of ever nuking Britain, or Iceland for that matter.

You know that if you ever do, we'll nuke the Guinness brewery in Dublin, and leave you dependent on the one at Park Royal...

Re:Sanctions (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204863)

Park Royal is in London so it will probably go in the first strike leaving us all dependent on Nigerian Guiness [] . Nuclear war is truly horrific.

Germany and chemical weapons (3, Insightful)

Kupfernigk (1190345) | about 2 years ago | (#42204831)

That's a little unfair. They were not very successful in WW1 and Germany didn't use them in WW2.

The problem they ran into, at Verdun, was that after chemical bombardment of the enemy you cannot tell the difference between (a) dead enemy and (b) enemy pretending to be dead until you get within accurate artillery and machine gun range.

So no, the Germans wouldn't go for chemical weapons. They would go for ballistic rockets and cruise missiles with conventional warheads, just like they did in WW2. And, back on topic, just like other Middle East countries are doing. The Iranians are far more likely to want a precision ballistic missile that can target the Knesset with a tonne or so of conventional explosive than a nuclear warhead. It is far more of a realistic bargaining tool.

Re: sorry - already done (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42205277)

The ability to make nuclear weapons is a fait accompli. It would
be interesting to know if any country has tried and failed to make
"The Bomb", and the circumstances around the failure. We know
that North Korea has succeeded. I am sure that if NK can do it,
then most governments can do it. Non poliferation is an important
consideration, but we have to be realistic. Iran will succeed, even under
extreem pressure to stop. We need to find other ways, to stop the spread of
WMDs. We also need new technology for electric power generation.
Liquid Floride Thorium Reactors (LFTRs) are one likely possibility. To fail
to look into new ideas, is an admission the situtation is not critical.

Re:Sanctions (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42205291)

Obviously I understand this was meant as a joke but...

The UK have had nuclear weapons and research facilities for a long time now...

This has been known (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42203811)

The US detonated a bomb in Operation Teapot "MET" in 1955

Re:This has been known (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42203833)

that should have been

The US detonated a U-233 bomb in Operation Teapot "MET" in 1955. The U-233 was bred from thorium.

proliferation (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42203871)

From TFA:
Thorium is widely seen as an alternative nuclear fuel source to uranium. It is thought to be three to four times more naturally abundant, with substantial deposits spread around the world.

So, how on Earth are we going to stop proliferation? Global War on Thorium? Occupy and/or control all nations of the world? Nuke Earth from orbit?

Re:proliferation (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204009)

I say we nuke Earth from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

ive always thought the idea (0)

nimbius (983462) | about 2 years ago | (#42203895)

of a "nuclear non-proliferation" act to be pointless. North Korea has nuclear weapons and as a black-eye to foreign policy rhetoric in the US, has not used them in combat. nor have Pakistan or India.
Israel has nuclear weapons, has not signed the non-proliferation treaty, and once a year seems to invade a neighbouring state or assassinate their scientists and political leaders.

the biggest threat to proliferation is Iran acquiring the technology, and using it as a deterrent to nations that might want to "liberate" it of its oil or natural resources.
nuclear non proliferation amounts to censorship.

Re:ive always thought the idea (0)

pr0nbot (313417) | about 2 years ago | (#42204115)

What scares me about proliferation is: while for rational people mutually assured destruction means nukes are unlikely to ever be used, when it comes to religious people, reason takes a back seat. (Or, if you want to be charitable, the premises from which they reason are extremely pliable.) FWIW this is also increasingly an argument against the USA having nukes.

Re:ive always thought the idea (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204457)

As far as NK is concerned, it helps both that they A) actually have a measure of self-preservation prevalent in their leadership, and B) lack a delivery vehicle without a significant chance of launchpad detonation. In the grand scheme of things, barring a major shift in NK's political structure, it is essentially a non-issue as long as there is still a reasonable threat of massive retaliation.

The real problem with proliferation is the crazy whackjobs with no vision or care for the future. Israel and Iran are both on that list. The only reason Israel gets away with what it does is because it has the power and the will to plunge the entire globe into WWIII -- and Iran wants this power, which is a primary motivator behind their own clandestine nuclear program. Both of these situations should scare the ever-loving shit out of anyone with a modicum of common sense.

Re:ive always thought the idea (0)

Decker-Mage (782424) | about 2 years ago | (#42204565)

Iran getting "the bomb" frankly scares me very little. True, Amandinejad is more than a bit on the scary side but I don't think the Ayatollah Khameni would let him have a very long leash as to when/whether/where to use a nuclear weapon. All any of the existing powers would have to do is to have a standing order that in the event of a chemical or nuclear attack on Saudi Arabia or Israel, there would be several nuclear detonations over Qom [a Shi'ite holy site, like Jerusalem and Mecca to Shi'ites] as well as Tehran and all the other "major" cities and religious sites, just for good measure. Believe me, the leash would be extremely short as would the one on Hezbollah in Lebanon and elsewhere. Oh, and BTW, the Ayatollahs call Qom home. Kinda drives home the point.

Before I was sent over to the middle east, and while it was still likely to go again, I took it upon myself to learn the actors. If I was going to be sent into "harm's way," I wanted to know who. especially among our "friends", might be doing the harming. Turned out it was a good call then, still is now. Sadly, most media organizations don't give you the history of the players let alone the real history of an entire region so you can figure who is doing what to whom and why.

Now it'll get research (2)

Turksarama (2666917) | about 2 years ago | (#42203923)

Uranium reactors were originally developed over Thorium at least partially BECAUSE you could make bombs with the technology. The nuclear arms race is 'over' in the west but I'm interested to see if this revelation makes Thorium reactor research suddenly interesting to world powers.

This has been known: (4, Insightful)

Hartree (191324) | about 2 years ago | (#42203939)

This is all pretty standard and well known. It still takes hot cells and an operating reactor to do.

And, there is nothing in it that can't be done right now regardless if there are thorium fueled reactors or not. The irradiation of the thorium can be done in existing research reactors. Thorium metal is available (it's used to increase emission in electrical filaments and in the mantles of camping lanterns).

This seems mostly to be FUD.

Re:This has been known: (1)

DCFusor (1763438) | about 2 years ago | (#42204393)

Yes, it's been known, and for years I've been telling the "Thorium is safe" whack jobs about it, so it's good to get "official" confirmation to shut those idiots up. I'm not against nuclear power, understand, just idiots who think that there's a magic/trivial solution to all the problems - most of which are human. We might not yet be responsible enough as a species to use this stuff wisely.

Re:This has been known: (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42205051)

and for years I've been telling the "Thorium is safe" whack jobs about it

There are two sides to that claim:

Claim 1: Thorium is safe since it cannot produce materials required to make a nuclear weapon. Given the linked article, that claim is clearly false.
Claim 2: Thorium is safe as a nuclear power source since it can be used in advanced reactor designs with passive cooling, can burn down fuel until a small amount of (relatively) short-lived waste is left, and is generally much cleaner for the environment than the older active-cooled lots-of-nasty-long-lived-waste reactors in the US. This claim is theoretically true. If it is also practically true, it makes about a zillion times more sense than promoting solar, which can be shown to not even come close to covering the energy needs of the US.

Unfortunately, timothy is a pro-solar/anti-nuclear idiot (as are most of the Slashdot editors, apparently), so they post FUD stories on nuclear and vaporware stories on solar. Idiots.

Re:This has been known: (1)

aliquis (678370) | about 2 years ago | (#42205141)

I thought safety was regarding reactors and accidents rather than weapons and willingly reactions and explosions.

Duh! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42203941)

The argument for Thorium isn't that U233 is incapable of making bombs. The argument is that U233 is so screaming hot with gamma radiation that all but the most capable bomb makers would reduce their work force into a smoking pile of ash long before they could fashion the device into anything threatening.

However (2, Interesting)

maz2331 (1104901) | about 2 years ago | (#42203949)

Breeding U-233 from thorium always creates enough highly radioactive U-232 that makes it unusable for weapon uses, and due to the very close atomic weight is incredibly diffuclt to remove. Random fissions during either assembly of a gun-type weapon or even an implosion mean that you're far more likely to end up with a "fizzle" (very low yield) due to starting the chain reaction too soon, than to get the actual yield that the weapon was designed for. And since the material is so dangerous to handle, the workers who have to put the thing together and maintain it are quite likely to die quickly, as will the electronics necessary to fire the weapon.

Re:However (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204151)

The bomb the US made from U-233( bred from thorium ) had a yield of 22 kilotons. More than being powerful enough to take out a city like Hiroshima. And just like the bomb that took out Hiroshima the electronics can be built with vacuum tubes which are immune to degradation by radiation. The US made one bomb using thorium with out killing off its workers so other countries can do the same.

Vacuum tubes (1)

Kupfernigk (1190345) | about 2 years ago | (#42205005)

They are not actually immune to degradation by radiation, but the Hiroshima bomb was strategic and the tubes didn't have to last long.

Years ago we were looking for an ultra-reliable thyristor with very fast response and thought we had found it in a US manufacturer's catalog - but the result of contacting them was an unexpected phone call from someone who sounded very suspicious, and we never did manage to source them. Later I found out they were for bomb triggers in MAD nukes and were very rad-hard. (With a true strategic missile you do not need to put the thing together till you intend to use it as part of your grand plan, while battlefield and MAD weapons need to be deployed very quickly. The Cuba crisis was particularly severe because the Russians only had strategic weapons; once they were ready for launch they were either going to be fired or scrapped, and politicians hate to scrap things.)

Re:However (5, Informative)

Andy Dodd (701) | about 2 years ago | (#42204185)

Read TFA.

Most U-233 that comes out of a reactor is formed by protactinium-233 decay.

While U-232 and U-233 are nearly impossible to separate (which is why Thorium has been considered to be proliferation-resistant), protactinium-233 is very easy to separate chemically, and leads to nearly pure U-233.

Re:However (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42205217)

I believe what you're looking for is the U-234, not U-232. U-234 is a hard gamma emitter, meaning that lead shielding won't stop the radiation, and leaving you with material that is useless for building a bomb, since everyone within 20 feet of it is going to die from gamma radiation poisoning. This is why LFTRs are not considered proliferation risks, and why the fuel needs to be reprocesseded about once ever 10 days to extract the U-233 and Protactinium-233 before they can absorb another neutron and shift up to U-234. There are lots of good sources on the Thorium 232 to Uranium 233 breeding cycle on the web. It's that very cycle that makes LFTRs possible. Thorium 232 is not a fissile fuel, the reactor requires an initial fuel dump of U-233 or U-235 to become active. After that, it breeds its own fuel as Th-232+N => U-233.

It's not like this article is some ground-breaking discovery that you can breed U-233 from Thorium...

ZOMG! (1)

Quiet_Desperation (858215) | about 2 years ago | (#42203985)

There's risk??? That's a four letter word! Kill it with fire!

(Meanwhile uranium reactors are around *because* they could make bomb material.)

Believe It Or Not, Discussed on Slashdot Before (2)

eldavojohn (898314) | about 2 years ago | (#42203997)

This reminded me of a three year old discussion I had on Slashdot before [] about thorium's fuel cycle yielding uranium-233 ... not sure if new evidence has come to light, can't read the Nature article.

Re:Believe It Or Not, Discussed on Slashdot Before (1)

Decker-Mage (782424) | about 2 years ago | (#42204409)

I can't tell anything here, either, due to the paywall. I'd like to run their work against the probability chains to see exactly what, if anything, is new. What I do get is that the threat is from some nation-state or non-nation-state actor seizing "spent" fuel rods and chemically separating out usable fractions of U-233. I have no clue, never needed one as a matter of fact despite having the clearance, what you need to achieve a critical mass, let alone with impurity levels you cited way back when. Damn paywalls. I don't have a university to back my readings anymore.

i knew it ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204025)

those dark irons are running an elaborate underground thorium weaponization program

Risk vs certainty (3, Insightful)

Hatta (162192) | about 2 years ago | (#42204071)

There may be a risk of nuclear weapons proliferation if we replace fossil fuels with nuclear. But if we don't, there is a damned certainty that the climate will continue changing faster than it ever has in the history of the human species. We are at the beginning of a global extinction event that has a very good chance of causing our own extinction. Nuclear weapons are barely a minor concern comparatively.

Re:Risk vs certainty (1)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | about 2 years ago | (#42204405)

And next thing you know, North Korea and Pakistan will have nukes! Oh, wait.

FWIW, I don't agree with your premise, but all those who do agree with your premise ought to agree with your conclusion. You'll notice they don't, though. There's more to gain for them by suppressing nuclear power and taxing carbon emissions, so that's how it'll be (for as long as people support their authority, anyhow).

Re:Risk vs certainty (2)

Rich0 (548339) | about 2 years ago | (#42204495)

Yeah, I don't get the big deal. Just station a garrison in every nuclear plant if you're paranoid, and a UN watch team if you must. The cost of doing that is likely trivial compared to the cost from stuff like lung cancer from coal soot, let alone nuclear proliferation.

Just build efficient breeder reactors and do whatever makes the most sense economically, and do it under high security.

People argue that it isn't possible to secure nuclear reactors, and that is just nonsense. We secure actual nuclear weapons production facilities, so why can't we secure facilities intended to not produce weapons.

Re:Risk vs certainty (1)

Rich0 (548339) | about 2 years ago | (#42204505)


s/let alone nuclear proliferation/let alone rising sea levels/

Re:Risk vs certainty (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204601)

No scientist, nor the IPCC, says that there is a certainty that the climate is changing rapidly due to human activity.

And the flat temperatures for the last 16 years are beginning to make it look as if the whole thing is mistaken anyway...

Switch to Fusion of Boron (0)

BoRegardless (721219) | about 2 years ago | (#42204093)

Tri-Alpha Energy in Irvine has been working to make a magnetohydrodynamic generator of fused Boron plasma ("aneutronic" fusion) and released a paper recently on the subject. The reaction generates charged plasma generating electricity without going through a steam generator and is thus simpler with less steps in some ways than a traditional nuclear fission reactor.

Thorium may just be "old school".

Re:Switch to Fusion of Boron (1)

WindBourne (631190) | about 2 years ago | (#42204553)

Thorium may be old school, but it can also be done quickly and safely.

Thermal plasmas with Z=2 die of Bremsstrahlung (2)

PeterM from Berkeley (15510) | about 2 years ago | (#42205113)

Under likely laboratory conditions, that is.

I like the idea of aneutronic fusion, I really like it a lot, but a theoretician has apparently shown it to be impossible to realize. Why? He did some calculations and figured out that the energy loss in a reasonably-sized thermal plasma from Bremsstrahlung radiation, which is a function of the atomic weight of the atoms in the plasma, causes too much energy loss to be sustained by fusing nuclei. The plasma radiates its heat away too fast, and you can't stop the X-rays and gamma rays within the plasma to keep it from cooling.

The Wikipedia article on aneutronic fusion covers this issue some and provides a few references. But the upshot is Bremsstrahlung makes aneutronic fusion a non-starter. It's physically impossible unless you have a VERY LARGE or VERY DENSE ball of plasma--neither of which is achievable in anything like a tokamac.

You *might* be able to get such a reaction to work in, say, a laser-ignited small fusion explosion, or if you can somehow manage to NOT have a thermal plasma. However, both of those are much harder to arrange for than a D-T thermal plasma.

It's really very sad, but DirTy DT reactions with their associated neutrons may be the only thing we have a chance of engineering any time soon!


Fertilizer can also be turned into a bomb... (1)

MikeRT (947531) | about 2 years ago | (#42204165)

Funny how no one right-thinking human being even seriously contemplates a massive, intrusive regulatory apparatus for fertilizer even though it did a heck of a job in the hands of Timothy McVeigh. It's also like common sense sometimes prevails...

Re:Fertilizer can also be turned into a bomb... (1)

WindBourne (631190) | about 2 years ago | (#42204537)

It really is amazing. It is far easier to get the Ammonium nitrate from the large number of sources, then it is to steal it from the relatively few nuke plants around the world. In addition, if AQ, et. al., North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, etc want to do this, they can actually build it cheaply and make their own bomb.

And yet, we would stop building safe nuke reactors because of some group of idiots that scream about everything.

I swear, between the far right extremists of the world (Al Qaeda, America's Republican party, etc), combined with the greenie extremists ( green party, etc), I think that the world is in for a continue deep trouble.

Re:Fertilizer can also be turned into a bomb... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204633)

Please make a distinction between organizations which actively participate in violence as opposed to those who merely encourage it.

Great news (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204287)

So, interested whackos wanting to do this and needing to learn how just have to get past the paywall at Nature. How fucked up is that?

For those of you wanting to make a bomb (1)

WindBourne (631190) | about 2 years ago | (#42204497)

Thorium should be used! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42204499)

Just go with Thorium already; instead of researching how to make it more dangerous (*sic*) they should be investing energy into how to make it practically work for freaking normal purposes (you a re-melt a shovel into a AK47 with a bit of work.. but WHY?!). Remember we are talking about an element 4 times more abundant than Uranium and could potentially be extracted from sea water! Also if they could do molten salt reactor designs in the 1960s why not re-launch now adapted for Thorium?

Phew! (1)

paiute (550198) | about 2 years ago | (#42204823)

I was worried about terrorists getting their hands on this technology, but then I read "The full article is in Nature, but paywalled.". Yay! Safe from the evil doers!

Not news, not since 1946 (1)

Ancient_Hacker (751168) | about 2 years ago | (#42205063)

This isn't really news. The original version of the Smyth Report mentioned research into using Thorium. The second edition deleted that paragraph. It was the only notable change from edition to edition. We're pretty sure the KGB noticed the change and went, like, "Hmmmmm...".

OMG! Th 232 can be made into U 233!! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42205147)

Um, yes, everyone knows this is possible, mostly because this is EXACTLY what a thorium reactor does. It just does it at approx. the same rate it consumes it. So yes, if someone wanted to bombard Th 232 then let it decay to U 233, it would work.

What they do talk about in the article is the chemical process exists to remove Pa 233 (one of the intermediate products) from the "sludge" which is being irradiated. One of the open-ended problems argued against LiFTRs is that the chemical plant (sorting what stays around to be bombarded from what goes to be used for reaction mass) needs more research to make the whole mess viable. Sounds to me like these guys just made that easier.

Th 232 is readily available. Any country that wants the stuff has or can get it. A research reactor capable of generating the flux required is not THAT hard to come by. One was built by a gentleman as young as 17. There isn't much that can be done about it, the risk exists, without regard to if the "free world" contenues to develop this for peaceful purposes. So we might as well use it for it's other benefits. (cheaper fuel, possible safety benefits)

(I am not a nuclear physicist, but I did stay at a holiday in express last night)

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