China Initiates Thorium MSR Project

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.

41 thoughts on “China Initiates Thorium MSR Project

  1. The US needs to fund a simple $1 billion a year nuclear program to promote the development of private commercial breeder technologies: LFTR, accelerator breeders, fast reactors, heavy water thorium breeders, traveling wave reactor, etc.

    Private companies working on developing such reactors could receive ten million to several hundreds of millions of dollars annually from the Federal government depending on how reasonable and mature their concepts are with the goal of having working reactors within ten years which should allow commercialization of several types of breeder reactors within 20 years.

  2. "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."

    And how did the ORNL leadership react? Are they not curious about using Thorium?

  3. Civilian energy production aside, given that LFTR proponents think these reactors might prove ideal for small surface warships and perhaps submarines, due to their size, simplicity, efficiency, and low cost, you can bet the Chinese reactors will eventually find their way into Chinese naval vessels.

    The potential outcome is a blue-water Chinese navy that is far more nuclear than the US Navy, which could be a game changer.

    1. "you can bet the Chinese reactors will eventually find their way into Chinese naval vessels. "

      Given the need for a low-carbon future you can equally bet they'll find their way into large civilian ships.

      The chinese have always been good at playing a long game – and the long game is that "war sells, but peace expands"

  4. Selling liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTR) as necessary for military parity would be a great way to expedite LFTR technology development in the USA.

    I would love to see a nation wide poll of greens to see if they can get behind LFTRs as a way to reduce coal consumption in the USA.

  5. Necessity is the mother of invention etc etc. I almost wish that the US had rolling blackouts already to finally kill off the enviromarxist movement so we could get serious about utilizing our own resources and also bring back nuclear in a big way.

  6. The difference here is not the amount of money poured into a government research project. The difference is the amount of regulation and litigation a similar effort would require in the US. Until we are willing to shut our ears to our own luddites and Cassandras, no amount of billions (borrowed from China, natch) will make us competitive.

    Oh, and I like how we graduated the head of the project from a US university. How's that anti-immigration thing working out for ya?

  7. "Oh, and I like how we graduated the head of the project from a US university. How’s that anti-immigration thing working out for ya?"

    No kidding? You mean the guy was here illegally? That's the only form of immigration I've seen any opposition to.

    1. Lightbridge is apparently aiming their product towards improving the horrendously antiquated and inefficient pressurized water reactors (PWRs). Kirk Sorensen has stated in a few talks that current PWR systems use only between 1-5% of the fuel in the rods before they are swapped out. Lightbridge states on their website that they are figuring a 30% increase is likely with their new concept… 1.3 – 6.5% efficiency is still pretty abysmal when compared to the potential of molten salt reactors promising close to 99% depletion of the thorium fuel, not to mention that the last 60 years of nuclear waste can be "fed" to the thorium reactors, and also end up as 99% depleted.

    2. in a nutshell: What about Lightbridge? They're probably irrelevant. Their best hope is to do research for the chinese under contract.

      They and most other western research groups are scrabbling to find funding to do even the most basic theoretical research because of rampant short-termism in the funding sources. Finding enough money to run up some test systems is currently even less likely that having people on mars within 20 years.

      Before people start howling about "antiamericanism" or other tribal nonsense – the global pollution problems we're facing are just that – global. It's about time people stopped caring about "national pride" and started working together across borders to find the common goal of not killing ourselves off with garbage.

  8. Perhaps this isn't the "innovation" selected by our leader; He will select / fund another. And, when he misses the mark, the next leader will select another innovation to fund. It's like the reaction cycle of Thorium, but with no useful products at the end, and requires constant [inefficient] fission of the producers and their money.

  9. Good for the Chinese. !

    While they are developing an inherently difficult,
    dangerous and dirty 20th century technology, the US
    can develop the 21st century nuclear technology:

    Dr. Nebel, head of the Polywell fusion demonstrator
    project, cannot say much, due to security restrictions,
    but every interview I have seen, he is grinning like
    a burro eating cactus as he reports 'promising data'.

  10. Anyone want to bet whether the US will be get one of the reactors currently passing through the NRC online before China has a working prototype of their thorium MSR?

  11. The head of the project could have easily taken the courses through the online program they offer. So no immigration issue. LoL. Who can blame them for wanting better for themselves. We seem willing to accept mediocre from our leaders and thats what we get.

  12. re: Oak Ridge reaction to Thorium-based reactors.

    Oak Ridge invented and built LFTRs in the 50s. But when budgets got tight it lost out to uranium fuel-cycle reactors that had the added benefit of producing plutonium – back in the days when the cold war required deterring your enemies with tons of stockpiled plutonium.

    We don't need billion dollar investments, just 100 startups playing in this space free of most regulation (save that the owners/operators live nearby). A few percent will be successful (at producing power and other goods – the LFTRs can run hot enough (1000 C) to break water into H and O.) at marginal cost of production that current fossil fuels can't match (currently about $2 a barrel at the wellhead, and less than one cent a KWH at the demarc).

  13. The big problem with Fusion is that it is mainly a play toy for physicists – instead of something which has been released to engineers to make it work. Sure there are lots of problems to solve in designing a fusion reactor; but there are lots of problems to solve in designing anything of complexity. Engineers are used to designing around problems – physicists aren't.

    If you look at the early computers designed by scientists they are very crude and rudimentary compared to the ones designed by engineers. We have fusion experiments – not practical reactors because we have experimenters designing them – not people who are used to reducing things to practical reality.

    The Farnsworth Fusor (the intellectual predecessor of the Polywell) produced more fusion on a desktop than "big fusion" has managed to do with billions of dollars since – of course Dr. Farnsworth was a lot more practical person than most of the "big fusion" people.

  14. Lightbridge is not working on a MSR, but develop thorium solid fuel for regular LWRs. It is still a once-through cycle, and only reduces uranium consumption by 5-10%. TO use thorium efficiently, we need a MSR.

  15. "An Observation": please stick to discussing reputable peer-reviewed research. Making throwaway statements about dubious 'alternative scientific' research does little for your credibility.

    "Big fusion" is progressing at a blinding rate: the state-of-the-art in fusion technology, as measured by common figures of merit, easily exceeds Moore's Law. Modern fusion machines are necessarily expensive one-off affairs because they ARE scientific instruments, laden with dozens of expensive diagnostics, and production machines will certainly be much cheaper — once the key engineering challenges — which are mostly to do with finding materials and configurations which can withstand the phenomenal radiation loads these machines generate — are figured out.

  16. DT Fusion development is "blindingly fast"? Fifty years in development would make a snail seem like an Olympic runner, and current estimates put the arrival of a functioning Fusion power station another 50 years in the future.

    Today: No material and structure is known which can
    (1) stand the high neutron ?ux under realistic DT fusion conditions,
    (2) allows e?cient tritium breeding and extraction,
    (3) transfers the produced heat away from the blanket to a “generator”,
    (4) reduces unavoidable tritium losses to the environment.

    ITER Tritium supply is mainly from CANDU heavy water reactors (shutdown ? 2020-2025?). Accumulated Tritium about 20 Kg (after 30 years), current price 30 Million dollar/Kg “Normal” ?ssion reactors make Tritium 2-3 Kg/year, projected cost 200 Million dollar/Kg.

  17. M. Report. Are you implying that China doesn't have the scale or the cash to undertake multiple projects at once? Last I checked, it's the rest of the world (well the West anyways) that is short on cash and dealing with strained/broken budgets.

  18. Why are we even talking about the government funding $1 Billion for a "private" nuclear program. We have the best nuclear program in the world in the U.S. Navy. They use one type of reactor and have not had a serious problem with it since day one of installation in the USS Nautilus. The use of one type of reactor simplifies everything. And, naval reactors are compact in order to fit into submarines and smaller surface combat ships. If any problem arises with one, all others can be corrected with minimum of effort and problem.

    Instead of having private companies vying to have their reactors instituted, the US Government should allow the US Navy to install and train in the operation of one type of simplified nuclear reactor system. We should have done this 30 years ago, so we wouldn't have to worry about Mid-East oil problems.

  19. NoMoreMarxistsInDC – funny you argue for a socialized energy producing system 🙂

    Anyway, do you know how much these naval reactor costs per MWe? (about 2 _orders_of_magnitude_ more than the commercial reactors..)

  20. Hey for those of you who haven't been following the fusion advancements and wonder what all the excitement is all about you need to catch up on the latest news. During the nineties the Navy was funding a fusion project headed Dr Bussard a well regarded physicist in nuclear fusion. Their small scale reactor was a success for its scale. The navy commissioned Dr. Nebel to build a second reactor to repeat its success and while they are not saying what the results are they are now moving on to the second phase. This phase is to see if the fusion reactor scales with size putting it in the plus side of energy production. The best part is that we will know this year what the results are from the second phase.
    By the way I still love LFTR. If government will just free the american people we'll build them or whatever solution it'll take to solve our energy problems.

  21. I'm a marxist and an environmentalist. I think LFTR is an excellent idea. I highly doubt that marxists are the biggest force of opposition. I think a lot of people have opposition to nuclear power on the basis of decades of disinformation.

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