Skip to comments.Chinese scientists urged to develop new thorium nuclear reactors by 2024
Posted on 03/18/2014 6:07:20 PM PDT by ckilmer
The deadline to develop a new design of nuclear power plant has been brought forward by 15 years as the central government tries to reduce the nation's reliance on smog-producing coal-fired power stations.
A team of scientists in Shanghai had originally been given 25 years to try to develop the world's first nuclear plant using the radioactive element thorium as fuel rather than uranium, but they have now been told they have 10, the researchers said.
"In the past the government was interested in nuclear power because of the energy shortage. Now they are more interested because of smog," said Professor Li Zhong, a scientist working on the project.
Premier Li Keqiang told the national legislature in Beijing on March 5 that the government had declared "war on pollution", and measures to tackle the problem included closing coal-fired power stations. About 70 per cent of China's electricity was produced by coal-fired plants last year, according to government figures. Nuclear power stations generated just over 1 per cent.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences set up an advanced research centre in Shanghai in January with the aim of developing the world's first industrial reactor using thorium molten-salt technology, according to a statement from the academy's Bureau of Major Research and Development Programmes.
All commercial nuclear plants in China, whether in operation or under construction, are designed to use uranium as fuel, but the country has run short of uranium and depends on imports from other countries.
The technology under development in Shanghai involves burning the radioactive element thorium in a salty "soup" to, in theory, release heat many times greater than today's reactors.
Other potential advantages of the technology are that China has large thorium reserves, at least the world's third-largest, according to some experts. The process may also produce less radioactive waste.
Professor Li, director of the project's molten salt chemistry and engineering technology division, said the smog crisis had provided huge impetus for their research.
"The problem of coal has become clear. If the average energy consumption per person doubles, this country will be choked to death by polluted air," he said. "Nuclear power provides the only solution for massive coal replacement and thorium carries much hope."
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.
They would also probably face opposition from sections of the Chinese public after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan and also from some senior officials with interests in the coal industry who were unlikely to give their backing to a new form of nuclear energy, they said.
One of the technical difficulties is that the molten salt produces highly corrosive chemicals such as fluoride that could damage the reactor.
The power plant would also have to operate at extremely high temperatures, raising concerns about safety. In addition, researchers have limited knowledge of how to use thorium.
"We are still in the dark about the physical and chemical nature of thorium in many ways," said Li. "There are so many problems to deal with but so little time."
Western countries such as the United States have experimented with thorium reactors but gave up on the technology because of the engineering difficulties.
Analysts have also suggested the US lost interest in thorium as a fuel for reactors because uranium was a more suitable material to produce nuclear weapons.
Interest, however, has been revived in recent years and research projects have been established in several countries, including the United States, France and Japan.
"This is definitely a race," said Li. China "faces fierce competition from overseas and to get there first will not be an easy task", he said.
The thorium reactor is not the only technology China is researching in an attempt to upgrade its nuclear power programme.
The Hefei Institute of Physical Science in Anhui province finished construction last month of the world's largest experimental platform for an accelerator reactor that burns nuclear fuel with a powerful "particle gun".
An experimental fast reactor is also operating in Beijing, and construction has started of a demonstration plant for a very-high-temperature reactor at Shidao Bay in Shandong province.
Professor Gu Zhongmao, an official at the China Institute of Atomic Energy, said so-called fourth-generation reactors were troubled by technological uncertainties, and to solve the smog issue the central government should approve and start construction of new nuclear power plants using existing technology as soon as possible.
The thorium reactors would need years, if not decades, to overcome the corrosion issue and the stability of accelerator-driven plants was also in doubt, he said.
"These projects are beautiful to scientists, but nightmarish to engineers," he said.
Smog would be reduced noticeably if nuclear power produced 5 to 10 per cent of the nation's electricity, according to Gu. China has about 20 nuclear reactors and is building nearly 30 more.
Its use of nuclear power is tiny compared with countries such as France, which produces about 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power plants.
After the Fukushima nuclear disaster three years ago, the central government withheld approval for new nuclear plants.
Part of the resistance came from the public, as many people were worried that nuclear plants would cause more serious contamination than the pollution created by coal-fired stations, Gu said.
Government agencies such as the Ministry of Water Resources also opposed the construction of nuclear plants in land-locked areas over concerns that radioactive waste would worsen river pollution.
"To completely get rid of smog, nuclear power is the only option," according to Gu.
"If we build as many nuclear power stations as there are in France and Japan, we will also enjoy blue skies and clean air like they do."
Wouldn’t they need an existing system to reverse engineer before they could develop one?
The biggest favor China can do for us is to be a good competitor.
Thorium produces a radioactive gas, radon-220, as one of its decay products. Secondary decay products of thorium include radium and actinium.
In nature, virtually all thorium is found as thorium-232, which undergoes alpha decay with a half-life of about 14.05 billion years.
Other isotopes of thorium are short-lived intermediates in the decay chains of higher elements, and only found in trace amounts.
Thorium is estimated to be about three to four times more abundant than uranium in the Earth's crust, and is chiefly refined from monazite sands as a by-product of extracting rare earth metals.
Thorium was once commonly used as the light source in gas mantles and as an alloying material, but these applications have declined due to concerns about its radioactivity.
Thorium is also used as an alloying element in nonconsumable TIG welding electrodes. It remains popular as a material in high-end optics and scientific instrumentation; thorium and uranium are the only radioactive elements with major commercial applications that do not rely on their radioactivity.
1 gram of thorium is more energy dense than 7,396 gallons of gasoline. This means that 8 grams of the substance could power a thorium turbine motor vehicle for a century.
Half life of 14.05 BILLION years??
If this were such a miracle element we would have all been using it for eons. Must have ONE
hell heck of a down side.
Ha! That there is funny.
However, Chinese interest here may help accelerate developments in North America.
A good team in the USA with financing and the original demo plant plans from Oak Ridge circa 1966-70 would be able to knock out a demo plant in 5 years easy.
:) Couldn’t hep myself.
Why don't they fix their coal-fired plants? Our coal-fired plants in the US burn cleanly.
Half life of 14.05 BILLION years??
True but this is the form of thorium found in nature. In the nuclear reactor the half life is orders of magnitude shorter. Much shorter than uranium in the reactors. the big virtue of LFTR thorium reactors is that they can burn nuclear wastes down to nearly nothing,.
The longer the half-life, the less radiation flux is emitted.
Alpha particles are helium nuclei. They can be stopped cold by an ordinary tinfoil hat.
Agree about the US government. However, I have been following the lftr thorium story for a couple years. Its gotten louder and louder. There is significant agreement on both the left and right that something needs to be done here about thorium. Its not just in the USA but all around the world.
I expect sometime in the next three years that a full blown and very very public competition will break out among a number of nations to be the first to develop an LFTR thorium reactor.
Part of the reason is the immense need for safe plentiful energy that’s several times more powerful and several times cheaper than current alternatives.
There’s also history.
This technology comes straight out the golden age of nuclear energy in the 50’s and 60’s. The best physicists of the greatest generation endorsed it. And Richard Nixon killed it. (in his spare time. For his day job he created the EPA.)
This history is picture perfect.
That would be great. No argument at all about how beneficial that would be.
No plutonium byproduct like the uranium 238 based reactors. Plutonium production was desired for weapons development.