The People’s Republic of China has initiated a research and development project in thorium molten-salt reactor technology, it was announced in the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) annual conference on Tuesday, January 25. An article in the Wenhui News followed on Wednesday (Google English translation). Chinese researchers also announced this development on the Energy from Thorium Discussion Forum.
Led by Dr. Jiang Mianheng, a graduate of Drexel University in electrical engineering, the thorium MSR efforts aims not only to develop the technology but to secure intellectual property rights to its implementation.
This may be one of the reasons that the Chinese have not joined the international Gen-IV effort for MSR development, since part of that involves technology exchange. Neither the US nor Russia have joined the MSR Gen-IV effort either.
A Chinese delegation led by Dr. Jiang travelled to Oak Ridge National Lab last fall to learn more about MSR technology and told lab leadership of their plans to develop a thorium-fueled MSR.
The Chinese also recognize that a thorium-fueled MSR is best run with uranium-233 fuel, which inevitably contains impurities (uranium-232 and its decay products) that preclude its use in nuclear weapons. Operating an MSR on the “pure” fuel cycle of thorium and uranium-233 means that a breakeven conversion ratio can be achieved, and after being started on uranium-233, only thorium is required for indefinite operation and power generation.
Currently there is no US effort to develop a thorium MSR. Readers of this blog and Charles Barton’s Nuclear Green blog know that there has been a grass-roots effort underway for over five years to change this. The formation of the Thorium Energy Alliance and the International Thorium Energy Organization have been attempts to convince governmental and industrial leaders to carefully consider the potential of thorium in a liquid-fluoride reactor. There have been many international participants in the TEA and IThEO conferences, but none from China.
Chinese energy demand is growing rapidly, and despite the world’s largest campaign of new nuclear construction, the vast majority of Chinese power generation still comes from fossil fuels. China has abundant supplies of coal, but their combustion has led to some of the worst air quality in the world. The ability of thorium MSRs to operate at atmospheric pressure and with simplified safety systems means that these reactors could be built in factories and mass-produced. They could then be shipped to operational sites with standard transportation. Their thorium fuel is compact and inexpensive. Chinese rare-earth miners have been rumored to have been stockpiling thorium from rare-earth mining for years, and if this is true, the Chinese will have hundreds of thousands of years of thorium already mined and available for use.
The Chinese now have the largest national effort to develop thorium molten-salt reactors. Whether other nations will follow is an open question.