China Takes Lead in Race for Clean Nuclear Power
Source: Wired, Richard Martin (2/2/11)
"China's new program is the largest national thorium-MSR initiative to date."
China has officially announced it will launch a program to develop a thorium-fueled molten-salt nuclear reactor, taking a crucial step toward 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.
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 and/or 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 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; and it's particularly well suited for use in molten-salt reactors (MSRs). Nuclear reactions take place inside a fluid core rather than solid fuel rods, and there's no risk of meltdown. Additionally, MSRs can consume various nuclear-fuel types, including existing nuclear waste stocks. Their byproducts are unsuitable for making weapons. They can also operate as breeders, producing more fuel than they consume.
China's new program is the largest national thorium-MSR initiative to date. The country 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.
The PRC plans to develop and control intellectual property around thorium for its own benefit.