A recent article in the Economist on the potential expansion of a Thorium-based nuclear fuel cycle to produce energy. While the article does provide an adequate summary of how thorium fuel cycle would operate, of few of the technical details are a bit lacking and do required additional nuance:. Such things include: no commercial reactors exist, the only model that has worked is a molten-salt one, and that reactor at ORNL had unexplained corrosion issues. However, turning to the larger strategic question, the article states the following on the use of thorium in nuclear weapons:
Paradoxically, though, given thorium’s history, it is the difficulty of weaponising thorium which many see (as it were) as its killer app in civil power stations. One or two 233U bombs were tested in the Nevada desert during the 1950s and, perhaps ominously, another was detonated by India in the late 1990s. But if the American experience is anything to go by, such bombs are temperamental and susceptible to premature detonation because the intense gamma radiation 233U produces fries the triggering circuitry and makes handling the weapons hazardous. The American effort was abandoned after the Nevada tests.
This renews a long-time running question of mine: At what point can we affirm a proliferating state as being a nuclear weapon state and having a deterrent arsenal? The commonly referred to line is the nuclear test as the threshold for becoming a nuclear weapon state. Jacques Hymans has argued that rather than a test/no test, or acquisition of a significant quantity of nuclear material as the baseline, has proposed a “…a theory-driven approach that focuses on the incentives and disincentives to test.” While his policy calls for just a bolstered way of thinking about the test/no test threshold, it does advance thinking on what makes a state a nuclear power. So, is the detonation of a weapon enough to classify a state as a new member of the nuclear weapon club, or is international recognition of the state’s denotation and that, because the state possess a nuclear deterrent, no military retribution for the test could occur.
I noted the above article from the Economist and that specific section has it argues against the idea that thorium does not make for a good nuclear weapon due to technical characteristics that make it less advantageous for long-term weapon deploy as uranium or plutonium. This is a fair point for a country like the US, the UK, or Russia, where the long-term relationship of nuclear deterrence has evolved to the point of providing strategic stability between other nuclear powers. But, would a newly proliferating state care? Is a nuclear weapon, in any form, an adequate deterrent? Or, would a U233 weapon, keeping in mind the negative attributes listed above, provide a ‘good’ deterrent?