Posted by: Taylor Hoff | February 2, 2011

Wired – China Takes Lead in Race for Clean Nuclear Power

China Takes Lead in Race for Clean Nuclear Power

China has officially announced it will launch a program to develop a thorium-fueled molten-salt nuclear reactor, taking a crucial step towards shifting to nuclear power as a primary energy source.

The project was unveiled at the annual Chinese Academy of Sciences conference in Shanghai last week, and reported in the Wen Hui Bao newspaper (Google English translation here).

If the reactor works as planned, China may fulfill a long-delayed dream of clean nuclear energy. The United States could conceivably become dependent on China for next-generation nuclear technology. At the least, the United States could fall dramatically behind in developing green energy.

“President Obama talked about a Sputnik-type call to action in his SOTU address,” wrote Charles Hart, a a retired semiconductor researcher and frequent commenter on the Energy From Thorium discussion forum. “I think this qualifies.”

While nearly all current nuclear reactors run on uranium, the radioactive element thorium is recognized as a safer, cleaner and more abundant alternative fuel. Thorium is particularly well-suited for use in molten-salt reactors, or MSRs. Nuclear reactions take place inside a fluid core rather than solid fuel rods, and there’s no risk of meltdown.

In addition to their safety, MSRs can consume various nuclear-fuel types, including existing stocks of nuclear waste. Their byproducts are unsuitable for making weapons of any type. They can also operate as breeders, producing more fuel than they consume.

In the 1960s and 70s, the United States carried out extensive research on thorium and MSRs at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. That work was abandoned — partly, believe many, because uranium reactors generated bomb-grade plutonium as a byproduct. Today, with nuclear weapons less in demand and cheap oil’s twilight approaching, several countries — including India, France and Norway — are pursuing thorium-based nuclear-fuel cycles. (The grassroots movement to promote an American thorium power supply was covered in this December 2009 Wired magazine feature.)

China’s new program is the largest national thorium-MSR initiative to date. The People’s Republic had already announced plans to build dozens of new nuclear reactors over the next 20 years, increasing its nuclear power supply 20-fold and weaning itself off coal, of which it’s now one of the world’s largest consumers. Designing a thorium-based molten-salt reactor could place China at the forefront of the race to build environmentally safe, cost-effective and politically palatable reactors.

“We need a better stove that can burn more fuel,” Xu Hongjie, a lead researcher at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, told Wen Hui Bao.

China’s program is headed by Jiang Mianheng, son of the former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. A vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the younger Jiang holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Drexel University. A Chinese delegation headed by Jiang revealed the thorium plans to Oak Ridge scientists during a visit to the national lab last fall.

The official announcement comes as the Obama administration has committed itself to funding R&D for next-generation nuclear technology. The president specifically mentioned Oak Ridge National Laboratory in his State of the Union address Jan. 25, but no government-funded program currently exists to develop thorium as an alternative nuclear fuel.

A Chinese thorium-based nuclear power supply is seen by many nuclear advocates and analysts as a threat to U.S. economic competitiveness. During a presentation at Oak Ridge on Jan. 31, Jim Kennedy, CEO of St. Louis–based Wings Enterprises (which is trying to win approval to start a mine for rare earths and thorium at Pea Ridge, Missouri) portrayed the Chinese thorium development as potentially crippling.

“If we miss the boat on this, how can we possibly compete in the world economy?” Kennedy asked. “What else do we have left to export?”

According to thorium advocates, the United States could find itself 20 years from now importing technology originally developed nearly four decades ago at one of America’s premier national R&D facilities. The alarmist version of China’s next-gen nuclear strategy come down to this: If you like foreign-oil dependency, you’re going to love foreign-nuclear dependency.

“When I heard this, I thought, ‘Oboy, now it’s happened,’” said Kirk Sorensen, chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering and creator of the Energy From Thorium blog. “Maybe this will get some people’s attention in Washington.”

While the international “Generation IV” nuclear R&D initiative includes a working group on thorium MSRs, China has made clear its intention to go it alone. The Chinese Academy of Sciences announcement explicitly states that the PRC plans to develop and control intellectual property around thorium for its own benefit.

“This will enable China to firmly grasp the lifeline of energy in its own hands,” stated the Wen Hui Bao report.

Image: Nuclear cooling towers in Byron, Illinois (Doug Bowman/Flickr)

I’ve been swearing up and down that Nuclear power is the future of clean energy, and now China’s gambit may prove me right. (I hope it does, but I hope we beat them to it!) Obviously China’s got the demand for more power, and they’ve got the finances for it, flush with cash from iPhones, McDonald’s toys, etc… production. The future is green in the way that electricity is the new gasoline, nuclear bombs are the new finite resource, and growing local is the new organic. Washington better wake the hell up, because China will be eating our lunch if we don’t upgrade our feeble edison-era grid (you remember, the one that downed the entire eastern seaboard because a tree fell on it?) and switch from sources of power that are constantly contested by revolutionaries in a countries that have such poverty that bread costs more than an AK-47. With breeder reactors you can squeeze over a thousand years of fuel out of existing nuclear stockpiles, which is renewable with a capital R. I just hope to whatever deity’s up there that this hippy-dippy green revolution can read between the lines. We need more science education to prevent this kind of retroactive “back to the stone age” 60s thinking. Disestablishmentarianism does not a productive society make.

I may write another futile letter to Obama. Everyone should write one too.

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