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China’s Research Into Thorium Will Have Implications for Nuclear Energy In the United States

thorium reactorNuclear energy may have hit a rough patch here in the United States but at least overseas and especially in Asia, it is revving up and preparing to go faster than ever before. What’s less known, however, is just what type of nuclear reactors for which China has plans: molten salt reactors that run on thorium.

On the periodic table, thorium rests just two spots away from uranium, which is the prevailing fuel used by today’s nuclear reactors. Once uranium is used as a fuel, it becomes highly radioactive. That waste is then cooled in spent fuel pools before is stored in above-ground, concrete-encased steel caskets. As the world learned from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident, that radioactive material could escape and do a lot of potential harm.

Thorium, on the other hand, is also abundant in nature and can also be used to generate nuclear energy. But its proponents are saying that “molten salt reactors” that burn such fuels won’t “meltdown” because, unlike today’s high-pressured units, they are low-pressured and won’t vaporize. When used as a nuclear fuel, the whole cycle also produces less radioactive waste than does uranium.

China has the most aggressive research program into molten salt reactors and thorium. They are referred to as fourth generation nuclear reactors, which it hopes to commercialize in 15 years. If it is able to do so, experts say that nuclear energy would be more efficient, cheaper and safer than today’s uranium-based reactors. India and Canada are also pursuing the technology.

“In 2012, I visited the Chinese molten salt reactor labs near Shanghai and it was clear that they are taking the time to get the basics right and to build a strong program from the ground up,” says David Martin, deputy director of research for the Weinberg Foundation in London, in a series of emailed questions.

In total, China has 34 nuclear plants, says the World Nuclear Association, and 20 more are under construction. By 2020, nuclear energy will make up 58,000 megawatts of the country’s energy mix. By 2030, it is expected to be 150,000 megawatts of third-generation reactors. That is still much less than the country’s coal portfolio, which comprises about 70 percent of its electricity generation.

The US still relies on second-generation light-water, solid-fuel reactors that operate, on average, at more than 90 percent capacity. Georgia-based Southern Company and South Carolina-based Scana Corp. are building third-generation light-water reactors that are more efficient and even safer.

Thorium is most suited to run in fourth-generation molten salt reactors, which  operate at lower pressures and which many consider to be fail-proof. Such reactors must reach high level temperatures to melt a salt solid. That liquid and fuel mixture is then used as a coolant in the fuel cycle.

“All fourth generation reactors make much less waste and run at higher temperatures,” says John Kutsch, executive director of the Thorium Energy Alliance in Chicago, who previously spoke with this writer. “But the similarity ends there. Inherently, thorium is much more abundant and easier to handle.”

The US, however, will find it difficult to transition to thorium because of its cold-war decision to invest in uranium fuels, which could be more easily enriched to make nuclear bombs. Even if there is a breakthrough in thorium technology, it would be too costly to retrofit America’s existing nuclear energy infrastructure. The supply chain is now fully stocked and includes everything from uranium suppliers to reactor designers.

The reality is that solid fuel reactors using uranium are now supplying 19 percent of this country’s electric generation. Molten salt reactors that use thorium will not replace them. But the thorium technology still has place in the mix, as evidenced by the international research now occurring. China is furthest along and if it succeeds, the science will be applied elsewhere.

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8 thoughts on “China’s Research Into Thorium Will Have Implications for Nuclear Energy In the United States

  1. Some good arguments for thorium reactors are:
    * they run at higher temperatures, so make more efficient use of the heat. Current PWR technology turns about 32% of heat into electricity. Thorium reactors running over 300ºC hotter will be able to turn 42%, or more of heat, into electricity
    * higher temperatures enable us to do other things with the heat apart from make electricity. e.g. Thorium MSR could be used to make synthetic fuel for aircraft and other vehicles.
    * thorium MSR will make far less high-level waste. A small percent of the actinide waste currently made by PWR reactors
    * Because they run at atmospheric pressure there are no scenarios where thorium MSR can contaminate large areas as happened at Chernobyl and Fukushima.
    * thorium MSR can power all the world’s electricity for millions of years. There’s enough easily available thorium for that.
    * MSR are physically smaller for the same power output as current PWR so are more easily turned into a mass-produced factory-made reactors. It is more scalable. The world could transition to MSR electricity within 10 years. It will be that easy.

    MSR : molten salt reactor.
    PSR : Pressurized water reactor.

    Current light water cooled reactors such as PWR and BWR do not hinder thorium technology. The main thing holding back the development or nuclear power (including thorium) are government regulations restricting who can use it and demanding an ultra safe/cautionary approach to reactor development and prototyping.

  2. Ken:

    There’s a risk associated with writing an article that is strongly influenced by salespeople.

    Thorium is interesting and potentially useful, but it is no panacea. Uranium was not chosen for investment simply because it could be more easily enriched for weapons, but because U-235 is the only naturally occurring isotope that can sustain any kind of chain reaction.

    Without a chain reaction, there is little or no energy release whether for explosions or more controlled releases of heat for power generation.

    There was no release of radioactive material from the Fukushima waste storage pools or dry casks. All of the escaping isotopes were released from the operating reactors. The specific isotopes released were I-131, Cs-134 and Cs-137. Those escaped because they were gaseous or water soluble. Those isotopes will be present in essentially identical abundance in molten salt reactors; they are produced when heavy metals like U-235 or U-233 are fissioned.

    I’ll grant that molten salt at atmospheric pressure will likely release a smaller portion of those materials in the event of an accident, but uranium working in molten salt as well as thorium does.

    Though China is spending a few hundred million on research for molten salt reactors, it is spending tens of billions building third and fourth generation solid fuel reactors. Not all of them are cooled by light water; the HTR-PM, which should be operational in 2017, is cooled by helium gas.

    By the time that molten salt reactors are developed enough for commercial operation, China will have an installed and operating industrial infrastructure using solid forms of uranium based fuels that is at least as large as the one that exists in the US and elsewhere today.

    Thorium will have a challenge breaking into that market. It might succeed, but it will not be easy to overcome the momentum as long as there is plenty of uranium in the world.

    Right now, uranium is selling for a price that is lower in nominal dollars that what it sold for in 1972.

    Rod Adams

  3. Thanks to Mark and Rod for adding a lot of insight into this discussion and beyond what I could have provided in the space that I had. Extremely appreciative and highly useful info.

  4. A very interesting article. However, things are happening outside of China as well. I Norway, the Halden research reactor has been running on thorium fuels sine April 2013. Norway has extensive resources of Thorium, and has developed a thorium LWR fuel. It works much better than traditional uranium LWR fuels – and can be used in all LWRs.

  5. Here’s the thing – a standard 1 MW reactor can and should be built. The amount of fissile material in a 1 MW unit would be so small as to make proliferation fears irrelevant. Factories could be made to mass produce them as non-user-servicable black boxes. These black boxes would not require a grid per se, meaning long distance power lines, substations, high voltage transformers, coal railroads, LNG tankers, pipelines are all things of the past. You could even run cars with them if you took a page from streetcars and put the transmission lines in the road.

  6. Not to mention which, a 1 MW reactor could be brought anywhere by 18 wheeler. Drop it off and plug it in. When it starts running down, plug a new one and and send the old one back for servicing.

  7. First of all, thanks for the great article.

    I am always reading China is building…, India is researching…, but Does anybody know specific names of companies, which are actively working in the Thorium and Molten Salt Reactor sector.
    I am a young engineering student, trying to get a foot in the door of this industry.

    Thanks.

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