Thorium is being touted as an ideal fuel for a new generation of nuclear power plants, but new study shows that it may pose a serious weapons proliferation risk; experiments to separate protactinium-233 show that it is feasible that just 1.6 tons of thorium metal would be enough to produce eight kilograms of uranium-233, which is the minimum amount required for a nuclear weapon; a nuclear reactor using thorium for fuel could produce that amount of thorium metal in less than a year.
The element thorium, which many regard as a potential nuclear wonder-fuel, could be a greater nuclear weapon proliferation threat than previously thought, scientists have warned. Specialists from four British universities suggest that, although thorium has been promoted as a superior fuel for future nuclear energy generation, it should not be regarded as inherently proliferation resistant. The piece highlights ways in which small quantities of uranium-233, a material usable in nuclear weapons, could be produced covertly from thorium, by chemically separating another isotope, protactinium-233, during its formation.
The problem is that the neutron irradiation of thorium-232 could take place in a small facility. It could happen in a research reactor, of which there are about 500 worldwide, which may make it difficult to monitor.
The most important thing is to recognize that thorium is not a route to a nuclear future free from proliferation risks, as some people seem to believe. The emergence of thorium technologies will bring problems as well as benefits.
Source: Homeland Security News Wire, http://www.homelandsecuritynewswire.com/dr20121206-nuclear-wonder-fuel-poses-serious-weapons-proliferation-risk