At IFRI we had a speaker addressing the Iranian Nuclear Crisis and France’s interest in the issue. The issue centers around Iran’s enrichment of Uranium past being just fuel-grade. Fuel-grade Uranium does not require as much U-235 than weapons-grade Uranium, so this enrichment has caused skepticism among the international community towards Iran’s intentions. But this is not news, this has been the case for many years. France’s interest in this affair lies both in the security threat of Iran to Europe as a whole and in their role as one of the major nuclear powers (along with the US). Current negotiations are hoped to be completed by the end of this year and provide a medium- to long-term solution to this crisis. Specifically, a solution that is long-term enough to be effective and sustainable, but short-term enough to not be affected by changing regimes. Our speaker mentioned how nuclear fuel is at the center of these negotiations, because if an alternative fuel or means of acquiring fuel could be found, the crisis would be solved, for the most part.
Now that that is out of the way, it’s time to get to the purpose of this post: I asked a technical question regarding the fuel situation, one that probably only 4 people in the room could’ve hoped to understand, at least in my opinion, and one of which, the speaker, flat out stated that he had no clue about what I was talking about, because of his lack of research into that specific matter (though he still answered to the best of his abilities). My question was about the use of Thorium as a fuel source for Iran that would both mitigate the conflict and benefit the scientific community. The purpose of this post is to give a basic nuclear engineering background for my fellow students (and speakers, if they happen to read this) to be able to better understand this and to maybe get some basic publicity for what is a very realistic solution to this problem.
The use of Thorium as a fuel source is very easy to adapt to because few modifications would have to be made to Iran’s current nuclear reactors. Thorium, as a fuel, naturally mainly comes in the form of Thorium-232, which is considered “fertile.” “Fertile” means that the material is not fissile (able to undergo fission), but can be bred to become a fissile element (U-233). Uranium-233 is the element that actually undergoes fission in the Thorium fuel cycle. Fission and breeding both occur in generally the same process, so if Iran wanted to collect U-233 to make bombs, they would have to shut down their reactors and remove the fuel. Because of this it is an easy safety check to Iran because we just have to track their waste stream. Also, U-232 which is non-fissile and not fertile, and also a part of the Thorium fuel cycle, cannot be chemically separated from the U-233, and so acts as an inherent proliferation guard. In addition to this, U-233 is universally considered to be completely not effective as weapons material and thus poses little more risk than a dirty bomb. Dirty bombs are conventional explosives laced with radioactive materials, and thus much easier to develop than nuclear weapons for terrorists or rogue nations. Also, Thorium is more than 3 times as abundant as Uranium, so would be a much cheaper fuel for Iran. And in addition to this, because the most common form, Thorium-232, is the fertile isotope and the one that would be used, no enrichment facility would be needed in Iran, which is also at the center of the issue with Iran. Because of the ease of tracking U-233 in the waste stream, the fact that U-232 acts as a natural guard against proliferation, the relative ease of adaptation for Iran to use Thorium-232 (the only natural isotope of it) as a fuel, and the abundance of Thorium, it is of my opinion that this is a very realistic solution to this issue with Iran, one that should be near the center of the discussion if it is not already. Now, I am only a first year nuclear engineer, so I am not extremely well-versed in all of the implications of Thorium as a fuel for Iran, but I do feel that from the knowledge I do have, it would be very successful in ending this crisis. Also, the use of Thorium as a fuel would pose benefits to the scientific community because it has only been very scarcely used throughout history. So, the use of this by Iran would not only improve political relations with the West, but help increase its scientific standing in the international community, which could pose future benefits for Iran as a nation, as well. Thus, I believe that both France and the US, along with all other nations that are parties to the negotiations with Iran, should at least consider this in their solution and maybe do more research into the technical background of this and whether or not it truly is plausible solution.