Emergency Pollution Measures: China Steps Up Development of Thorium Nuclear

China’s central government has accelerated the development of a novel form of nuclear reactor that runs on thorium fuel rather than on uranium as part of Premier Li Keqiang’s recently declared “war on pollution,” according to the South China Morning Post.

Beijing now expects the Shanghai branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences to build a liquid thorium reactor within 10 years—by 2024—rather than within 25 years, the story notes, siting remarks from Professor Li Zhong, a scientist working on the project.

Nuclear generation emits neither environmentally damaging CO2 nor the pollutants that are smothering Chinese cities. New reactor types like those that run on liquid thorium fuel augur advances in nuclear safety, economics and usefulness when compared to the conventional solid uranium-fueled models that have defined the global nuclear industry for its 50-plus years. They also portend a great reduction in nuclear “waste,” and in the threat of weapons proliferation.

It’s not clear whether the 2024 target does indeed represent a ramp-up. As I reported last November on my Weinberg blog, China, with the environment in mind, was already eying 2024 for a small pilot version of the reactor and was scheduling 2035 for a bigger “demonstrator” model. It had not committed to an actual live production year. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) article does not state whether 2024 now represents the year in which the liquid thorium reactors would start service, although that is implied.

China is also developing other alternative reactors, including an unconventional design that uses thorium fuel shaped into solid pebble form rather than in traditional fuel rods. As of November, developers were to complete the pebble bed model before the liquid one.

Regardless of the extent to which China has intensified the timeline, the point is that the environmental imperative has gained importance, especially now that Premier Li has declared a national assault on pollution, including the closure of some 50,000 coal plants.

“In the past, the government was interested in nuclear power because of the energy shortage,” said Professor Li. “Now they are more interested because of smog.” The SCMP also noted that:

Researchers working on the project said they were under unprecedented “war-like” pressure to succeed, and some of the technical challenges they faced were difficult, if not impossible, to solve in such a short period.

China’s thorium reactor development includes a collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy.

Jiang Mianheng, the Chinese official (and son of China’s former president Jiang Zemin) who has headed the country’s thorium reactor development, has said China wants to use the reactors not only for electricity, but also as a source of clean heat for high temperature industrial processes, which today consume massive amounts of fossil fuels.

Molten salt and pebble bed reactors run safely at much higher temperatures than do conventional reactors, making them suitable as heat sources for operations like cement and steel making, oil processing, hydrogen production, and others (incidentally, Premier Li’s pollution fight includes abandoning outdated, dirty steel production methods). U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz recently encouraged the use of reactors for such industrial processes.

The alternative reactor types can also run on uranium fuel. China should have a ready-made supply of thorium, which is a byproduct of some of the many rare earth metals that China actively mines and sells. China dominates the planet’s rare earth market.

The rare earth-thorium connection has inspired two U.S. senators to propose a bill that would boost domestic rare earth mining, while at the same time establishing storage for thorium as a future energy source.

Photo is by Mark Halper

With permission

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