“The technology has not been available until now, and a major initial investment is required in order to test this type of reactor,” says Mr Lillestøl. He has spread information for years about accelerator-driven nuclear reactors which use thorium. And he hopes that Norway will build the first one.
“I’m an optimist, but I believe it’s now or never,” he continues.
The idea behind the reactor is not Mr Lillestøl’s, but that of his former colleague and friend from CERN, the Nobel Laureate Carlo Rubbia.
The secret is in the type of fuel
“He is an immensely creative man, one of the most intelligent men I have met. He has always worked on minor and major inventions.” says Mr Lillestøl. One of his major inventions was a new type of reactor that uses thorium as fuel, which is not encumbered with the same major problems as conventional nuclear power technology.
The secret is in the type of fuel: Thorium. Thorium is not itself fissile, and cannot therefore sustain a fission reaction. The chain reaction cannot therefore spin out of control, which is the greatest hazard in conventional nuclear power plants. In addition, the technology cannot be used to manufacture materials for nuclear weapons.
“It is technically possible, but in reality the material that is required is too difficult to handle, making it largely unfeasible. If you are determined to make nuclear weapons, there are simply much easier methods of doing so,” says Mr Lillestøl.
The oil fund x 1000
Mr Lillestøl has therefore proposed that Norway invests the EUR 550 million, which the researchers at CERN believe are needed to build a prototype of an accelerator-driven nuclear reactor based on thorium. At the current exchange rate, that is NOK 4.4 billion, or only NOK 400 million more than the government is investing in the CO2-cleaning plant at Mongstad.
According to Mr Lillestøl, there is another important reason why Norway should make the first decisive investment. The fact is that Norway has the world’s fourth largest deposits of thorium, totalling 180,000 tonnes. Mr Lillestøl claims that at the current price this can generate a staggering NOK 1.5 million billion in revenues, corresponding to approximately 1,000 times the value of the oil fund.
In many ways, a thorium reactor seems too good to be true, and in a way it is. In fact, no one wants to build the reactor, at least not yet.
French nuclear power bosses turned it down
Carlo Rubbia presented the proposal in person to the EU in the early 1990s. The response was initially good:
“The EU granted a total of EUR 100 million to the project over a five-year period. Many of us in the CERN milieu at that time took it for granted that we would see an operational prototype in four to five years,” says Mr Lillestøl.
When Mr Rubbia felt that there was an adequate research basis for building a prototype, he asked for EUR 500 million to carry this out. He then received the thumbs down.
“The problem is France. They have a very strong nuclear power sector, which is not interested in competition. They would rather continue to develop their own technology,” explains Mr Lillestøl. And when the French have made their minds up about something, it is difficult to get anything through the EU.
Today, the thorium reactor is no longer included in the EU’s energy policy plans. Instead, Europeans wish to take advantage of Norwegian gas, coal and existing nuclear power plants.
Mr Rubbia was very disappointed by the rejection, and shelved the project. He didn’t want to waste his time on politics when he could be carrying out research, so he turned his attention to solar power instead. Mr Lillestøl, however, did not want to give up.
Since 2003, he has personally campaigned to persuade someone to build the prototype that is required in order to convince the world.
“I feel that my expertise has now given me the chance to make the world a slightly better place, for our children and grandchildren. I’m not interested in money or honour. I’m too old for that”, he laughs.
Wants to make Norway a world leader in nuclear power technology
Although Mr Lillestøl is also keen to make the technology available to developing countries, he believes that Norway should make the first decisive investment.
“Mr Rubbia used to joke when I met him: “You’re so rich in Norway. You can make the entire investment on your own!” I believe that if we decide to build this prototype, it could be one of the most important decisions ever in Norwegian foreign policy, along the same lines as when we decided to be masters of our own house for the petroleum industry. At that time, we used expertise from outside Norway and made a concentrated effort to provide education in the area. Within 10-15 years, Norway was a world leader in petroleum technology”, says Mr Lillestøl.
He believes that Norway, by the same method, can become a world leader in safe nuclear power technology.
“I personally know a number of physicists, at CERN among other places, who have said that they would drop whatever they were doing in order to come to Norway to be involved in the building of a prototype, if the funding was in place”, says Mr Lillestøl.
Giving up in six months time
In the last six months the Norwegian authorities have just started to wake up. Mr Lillestøl has participated in open meetings and held lectures in which he has presented his proposal. Teknisk Ukeblad (Technical weekly) has written about the plans several times. The daily press and television have also gradually switched on: the newspaper Verdens Gang recently published a six page feature in its weekend magazine on the thorium reactor. And this week, the Norwegian Broadcasting Company (NRK) is recording its programme Schrødingers katt, which will feature a report about the thorium reactor.
“Wherever I go, people are convinced and enthusiastic,” says Mr Lillestøl. Politically, he is still running up against a wall, however. the Norwegian Progress Party’s (FRP) energy policy spokesperson, Ketil Solvik-Olsen has, however, become involved in the case, and has sent an interpellation to the Minister of Petroleum and Energy, Odd Roger Enoksen. The Minister has so far showed no interest, publicly. If he continues to show no interest, Mr Lillestøl will do the same as Mr Rubbia.
“I shall pursue the matter for another six months. If nothing concrete has started to happen by then, I will give up”, says the Physics Professor. “It’s not the end of the world, it just means that Norway is missing out on a unique opportunity,” he explains.
“I am convinced that thorium reactors will be built. A number of exciting projects are already in progress in India and Russia. My point is that it is a matter of urgency for Norway to get involved in this work, if we are to play a decisive role,” says Mr Lillestøl.