Experimental reactor could hand China the holy grail of nuclear energy

Updated: September 15th, 2021 09:40 PM IST

@PatriciaMary You introduced me to these five years ago. I read into the problems. Interesting.

Experimental reactor could hand China the holy grail of nuclear energy

The reactor is fuelled by thorium, a weakly radioactive element, instead of uranium. If successful it could deliver safer and cheaper nuclear energy, helping the country to reduce its carbon footprint. It will use molten salt rather than water as the coolant and its by-products are less suitable for weaponisation.

The trial reactor will be small — three metres tall and 2.5 metres wide — and will only have a capacity of two megawatts (MW), enough to power up to 1,000 typical homes. However, it forms part of a longer-term plan to develop a series of small molten salt reactors, each with a capacity of 100MW of energy, enough to power hundreds of thousands of homes.

By contrast, China’s coal industry currently produces 1,050 gigawatts of energy, and is predicted to reach 1,300 gigawatts (GW) by 2030, according to the China Electricity Council.

Because the reactors do not require water cooling they can be built in desert regions, away from large population centres. They could play a role in helping the country meet President Xi’s goal of making China carbon neutral by 2060.

“They’ve effectively reactivated a research programme that the US mothballed back in the Sixties,” Nigel Marks, an associate professor of physics at Curtin University in Australia, said. “Who knows, maybe in a different climate with some different economics they could make it work.” He told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the energy industry had originally chosen uranium, a more dangerous material, rather than thorium because it was easier to use.

Simon Middleburgh, a nuclear materials scientist at the University of Bangor, was equally excited. “We are going to learn so much new science,” he told Nature. “If they would let me, I’d be on the first plane there.”

The United States built the world’s first thorium molten salt reactor in the 1940s at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory but the project was shelved during the Cold War and the reactor was shut down in 1969. China briefly turned to thorium in the 1970s but made no progress “due to limitations in its technological, industrial and economic levels” at the time.

Research resumed in 2011, when the Chinese Academy of Sciences was tasked with developing the technology to help meet the national demand that energy should be safe and sustainable.

In 2017 the Chinese Academy of Sciences signed an agreement with Gansu, a northwestern province, to build the thorium molten salt reactor, touted as a much safer and cleaner option than conventional reactors. The project had total investments of £2.5 billion.

“It’s been the world’s dream for more than half a century to develop thorium resources,” Jiang Mianheng, a chief scientist for the project, said at the time.

The project was expected to turn Gansu into a “new energy base” for the country. Wuwei, a city in Gansu on the edge of the Gobi desert with easy access to thorium and salt, was picked to house the reactor.

The project has already attracted some unwelcome public attention, however. In 2018 local officials hired Taoist priests to pray for the reactor’s safety at its foundation-laying ceremony. The priests were seen burning talisman paper in a scene described as “absurd” by state media.

The authorities started an investigation into the superstitious ritual and ordered the officials to apologise. The Chinese Academy of Sciences acknowledged that the “event was contrary to the spirit of science”.

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