Steven Den Beste worries that solving our energy problem with small thorium reactors will lead to nuclear proliferation.
I disagree but I don’t do so based on the technical specifics of thorium reactors. I would argue that stopping nuclear proliferation has nothing to do with the non-military use or non-use of any particular technology.
So how do we stop nuclear proliferation? The answer is simple: We can’t.
When people talk about stopping proliferation, they forget one key fact: Nuclear weapons technology is 60 years old. You can’t stop countries from recreating a 60-year-old technology.
It’s immediately obvious that as technology in general progresses, it become easier to implement any particular technology. Technologies like computers, radar, jets, antibiotics, pesticides, etc. that were super expensive and complicated cutting-edge technology in 1945 today are so cheap and ubiquitous we don’t see them as anything special.
Nuclear technology has undergone the same evolution. In 1945 creating nuclear weapons required bleeding-edge physics and a massive industrial base. For example, one of the major bottlenecks was the lack of enough skilled machinists to create all the high-tolerance components of the bombs, reactors and separators. Today, however, all the physics and all the tools are old hat. The physics is widely understood and a $500,000 computer-controlled lathe can crank out WWII-era levels of tolerance at the touch of a button.
Imagine trying to stop a contemporary country from building the equivalent of WWII-era computers, radars, jets, antibiotics, chemical weapons, etc. You simply couldn’t do it without bombing them back to a pre-industrial tech base and keeping them there.
Even if we could stop countries from using a 60-year-old technology today, how long could we keep it up? Every year that goes by means that building nukes gets cheaper and easier. In 2045, are we seriously going to be able to prevent anyone from building a 100-year-old weapon?
Today, any country that has the barest industrial base and wants nuclear weapons can build them. Countries like Brazil and South Africa got right to the point of having nuclear weapons 30 years ago, but decided to back off of their own accord. When improvised and chaotic countries like Pakistan and North Korea have nukes, you know the proliferation horse has long since bolted and it is too late to close the barn door.
We can no longer stop proliferation by any means other than direct military action. The use by anyone of thorium or other types of reactors to provide life-saving energy for the world will have zero effect on the spread of nuclear weapons. We desperately need abundant, cheap and low-environmental-impact energy to maintain and raise the standard of living across the world. Nuclear power can provide that.
We need to stop talking and thinking about proliferation like it is 1955. We need to acknowledge that nuclear technology is no longer a high technology that we can restrict to only the most advanced and powerful nations. Doing so provides no benefit and causes a lot of harm.