Hans Blix: Nuclear must use thorium fuel to reduce weapons risk

It's time for the industry to change its uranium ways, says the UN's former chief weapons inspector.


GENEVA - Hans Blix, the disarmament specialist best known for finding no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq a decade ago, has called on the nuclear industry to start powering reactors with thorium instead of uranium, a move that he said would reduce the chance of fashioning weapons from nuclear waste.

"Thorium fuel gives rise to waste that is smaller in volume, less toxic and much less long lived than the wastes that result from uranium fuel," Blix said in a presentation at the Thorium Energy Conference 2013 here yesterday.

Uranium poses weapons proliferation risks at different stops along its value chain. The nuclear industry enriches natural uranium with enough of a uranium isotope that makes the fuel suitable for conventional reactors and that at a higher mix could also lead to bomb material (that's the concern surrounding Iran's nuclear energy program). At the other end of the uranium cycle, plutonium "waste" could also be used for weapons.

“Even though designers and operators are by no means at the end of the uranium road, it is desirable today that they use their skill and imagination to explore and test other avenues as well,” said Blix, who directed the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1981 to 1997 and who was the United Nation's chief weapons inspector from 2000 to 2003.

As I reported on my Weinberg blog yesterday, Blix noted:

“The civilian nuclear community must do what it can to help reduce the risk that more nuclear weapons are made from uranium or plutonium. Although it is enrichment plants and plutonium producing installations rather than power reactors that are key concern, this community can and should use its considerable brain power to design reactors that can be easily safeguarded and fuel and a fuel supply organizations that do not lend themselves to proliferation. I think in these regards the thorium community may have important contributions to make.”

Nuclear experts disagree over the extent to which thorium can reduce the weapons risk. Some enthusiasts say that thorium's advantages would be optimized by using it in reactors that are altogether different from today's, such as a molten salt reactor.

The four-day Thorium Energy Conference is taking place at international physics lab CERN. Earlier in the week Nobel prize winning physicist Carlo Rubbia - a former CERN director - also encouraged the use of thorium. Rubbia prefers a reactor type that is driven by a particle accelerator. I'll write more about that in a separate blog post.

Photo of Hans Blix at Thorium Energy Conference is by Mark Halper

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