“Thorium-based nuclear energy” Interview with Professor Egil Lillest?l

7 September 2009
“Thorium-based nuclear energy” Interview with Professor Egil Lillest?l

nuclear energy, Thorium, CERN, Carlos Rubbia, energy supply

In Norway, there has been a passionate debate about whether the country should convert to nuclear energy or not. Since April last year, Professor Lillest?l has been on the TV and radio advocating nuclear energy. But not just any form of nuclear energy — his ideas are based on the new technology of thorium, which promises what uranium has never delivered: abundant, safe and clean energy — and a way to burn up old radioactive waste. In addition, there is no by-product that can be used for nuclear bombs — one more reason for developing this technology!

Professor Lillest?l is not a newcomer to the field of nuclear energy. For more than forty years, he has dedicated his life to physics, and in particular nuclear physics, spending his time between the University in Bergen, where he is Professor of Physics, and CERN — the European Organization for Nuclear Research, where he has been the Vice Director for the Physics Department. Professor Lillest?l has also had PhD students from some of the most prestigious universities in Europe, such as the French ?cole politechnique, the ?cole normale sup?rieure and the Coll?ge de France.

We were able to meet him in Geneva where he told us about his commitment and why nuclear energy is be-coming so important. So we leave the floor to Professor Lillest?l …

Let me first give you some background information. Over the last ten years, average energy consumption has increased by more then 3% annually, which would imply that it doubled ever twenty-four years. How-ever, the progonoses are that by the end of the twenty-first century, it will be about four to six times higher than it is today. This is a huge challenge, and very few people are really aware of the seriousness of the problem. I did not invent these figures; everybody can read them in international studies. Unless something is done, we are heading towards huge energy problems in the future. To my mind, there are only two possibilities: nuclear energy and direct conversion of solar heat.

Q: Why should Norway support the building of a nuclear reactor and why should it start work on an international research project on thorium-based nuclear energy?

This is all related to my collaboration with Carlo Rubbia, the 1984 Nobel Prize Laureate in Physics. He was the man behind the idea of an accelerator driven thorium-based nuclear reactor that offers no possibility of a meltdown. His research was so promising that I was sure that the first prototype would soon be built. However, it has never happened due to the different agendas of countries like France, that prefer to replace their existing nuclear power plants with new ones instead of investing in this project. The reason why there has been no action is due to several factors — lack of expertise, lack of funding, etc.

Then this idea came to me that Norway should do it first. First of all, Norway is an important energy nation with advanced technology and with large thorium reserves. It should take special responsibility for the development of such a nuclear reactor. This would, in my mind, be an important Norwegian contribution to preserve the standard of living for future generations.

It is a huge project costing some 550 million Euros, but I am not suggesting that Norway should finance it alone. It should at least guarantee it so that the first proto-type could be built and that we could gather expertise somewhere in order to work on this project for the benefit of the whole world, and not only for one single country. It would not only boost education and expertise in this field in Norway, but also elsewhere.

Q: Is this thorium-based power plant just as efficient as traditional nuclear power stations?

If you burn one kilogram (kg) of thorium, in comparison with today’s use of uranium, you will get 250 times more energy out of it than you would out of the uranium. So, first of all, thorium is far more efficient energy-wise and, secondly, there exists three to four times more thorium in the world than there is uranium — you find it in the United States, Australia, India and Norway. However, if you look for it, important reserves of thorium will be found in many other countries.

CERN’s 1984 Nobel prizewinners Carlo Rubbia (left) and Simon van der Meer © CERN

Q: Talking about nuclear energy, the Chernobyl accident comes to people’s minds.

With the Carlo Rubbia concept, it’s impossible to have the kind of accident that happened in Chernobyl, simply because the reactor will not melt down like it did then. You cannot give that same guarantee in terms of safety for the new nuclear power plants (often called the fourth generation); although I think they will be safer than those constructed earlier.

In addition, by using the Carlo Rubbia concept the problem of nuclear waste will be reduced substantially. Not only will you get less waste, but you will also not obtain the large quantities of plutonium that nations can use for making bombs. Looking at Iran and North Korea, one can wonder whether it is the energy aspect that they were most interested in or the bombs …

What more can we hope? That Professor Lillest?l will succeed in this endeavour and that Norway and other countries will support his battle for this new energy which sounds very appealing…

For further information,
please visit Professor Lillest?l’s website http://web.ift.uib.no/~lillestol/Energy_Web/Energy_and%20Thorium.html