The darkest side of nuclear power, as North Korea just dramatically demonstrated, is that its waste can be made into bomb fuel. Current nuclear reactors are powered by a mix of two isotopes of uranium that produce a third isotope--uranium 239, which ultimately decays into bomb-grade plutonium. Since 1992, Thorium Power Ltd. has been working on a new kind of fuel that mixes uranium with thorium, an element named after the Norse god of thunder, in a process that produces no uranium 239. The goal is to "sever the link" between nuclear power and weaponry. Backed by renowned nonproliferation experts and activists, including former British Conservative Party leader Michael Howard and American lawyer Seth Grae, a member of the board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists who has helped bring former Soviet nuclear scientists into the project, the company went public on Oct. 9 and its share price drifted down slightly in its first week to close at 35 cents. NEWSWEEK's Malcolm Beith spoke to Grae, who is the president and CEO and sees a bright future. Excerpts:
We've been testing at the Kurchatovlab for three years. It's Russia's Los Alamos. Westinghouse [Electric Co.] has been independently verifying the process and says there are no technical reasons why it won't work.
In about three years we'll have larger-scale development of reactors.
Commercial reactors. [Currently] the fuel is in a research reactor.
Thorium-fuel technology will produce about 85 percent less plutonium, but that plutonium will be in an isotopic mix that is completely unusable for nuclear weap-ons. It's the most efficient way to develop nuclear reactors.
We've had substantial interest--meetings with companies and governments from Europe and other parts of the world. We recently met with top officials from Poland. I can't name them all yet because we recently became a publicly traded company.
The stock has been pretty much level in these first few days of trading--we started trading as a combined company on Oct. 9--and we have not put out any major news during this period. We expect that our shareholders will continue to support us as we execute on the business plan and announce new developments news over the coming weeks and months.
This technology can stop the link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. If reactors were using this fuel, even if it were reprocessed, it could never be used for weapons. This technology is the only way to achieve three goals--produce massive amounts of energy for the world, not emit greenhouse gases, and not spread nuclear weapons materials--without making one of them worse. We expect it to be a very successful global business.
The market for nuclear fuels is several billion dollars globally.
This is a for-profit company, but there is a growing need for nuclear energy around the world, and it is critical that nuclear power plants do not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and that the capacity of nuclear power plants be utilized to eliminate the existing stockpiles of plutonium. Our thorium fuel technology allows this to be accomplished in what we expect to be a highly profitable enterprise.