The Chinese are running away with thorium energy, sharpening a global race for the prize of clean, cheap, and safe nuclear power. Good luck to them. They may do us all a favour.
Princeling Jiang Mianheng, son of former leader Jiang Zemin, is spearheading a project for China’s National Academy of Sciences with a start-up budget of $350m.
He has already recruited 140 PhD scientists, working full-time on thorium power at the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear and Applied Physics. He will have 750 staff by 2015.
The aim is to break free of the archaic pressurized-water reactors fueled by uranium — originally designed for US submarines in the 1950s — opting instead for new generation of thorium reactors that produce far less toxic waste and cannot blow their top like Fukushima.
“China is the country to watch,” said Baroness Bryony Worthington, head of the All-Parliamentary Group on Thorium Energy, who visited the Shanghai operations recently with a team from Britain’s National Nuclear Laboratory.
“They are really going for it, and have talented researchers. This could lead to a massive break-through.”
The thorium story is by now well-known. Enthusiasts think it could be the transforming technology needed to drive the industrial revolutions of Asia — and to avoid an almighty energy crunch as an extra two billion people climb the ladder to western lifestyles.
At the least, it could do for nuclear power what shale fracking has done for natural gas — but on a bigger scale, for much longer, perhaps more cheaply, and with near zero CO2 emissions.
The Chinese are leading the charge, but they are not alone. Norway’s Thor Energy began a four-year test last month with Japan’s Toshiba-Westinghouse to see whether they could use thorium at Norway’s conventional Halden reactor in Oslo.
The Japanese are keen to go further, knowing they have to come up with something radically new to regain public trust and save their nuclear industry.
Japan’s International Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS) — now led by thorium enthusiast Takashi Kamei — is researching molten salt reactors that use liquid fuel.
Is this what Premier Shinzo Abe meant when he revealed before Christmas that he planned to relaunch nuclear power in Japan with “entirely different” technology? We will find out.
The Chinese aim to beat them to it. Technology for the molten salt process already exists. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee built such a reactor in the 1960s. It was shelved by the Nixon Administration. The Pentagon needed plutonium residue from uranium to build nuclear bombs. The imperatives of the Cold War prevailed.
The thorium blueprints gathered dust in the archives until retrieved and published by former Nasa engineer Kirk Sorensen. The US largely ignored him: China did not.
Mr Jiang visited the Oak Ridge labs and obtained the designs after reading an article in the American Scientist two years ago extolling thorium. His team concluded that a molten salt reactor — if done the right way — may answer China’s prayers.
Mr Jiang says China’s energy shortage is becoming “scary” and will soon pose a threat to national security. It is no secret what he means. Escalating disputes with with India, Vietnam, the Philippines, and above all Japan, are quickly becoming the biggest threat to world peace. It is a resource race compounded by a geo-strategic struggle, with echoes of the 1930s.
His mission is to do something about China’s Achilles Heel very fast. The Shanghai team plans to build a tiny 2 MW plant using liquid flouride fuel by the end of the decade, before scaling up to commercially viable size over the 2020s. It is also working on a pebble-back reactor.
He estimates that China has enough thorium to power its electricity needs for “20,000 years”. So does the world. The radioactive mineral is scattered across Britain. The Americans have buried tonnes of it, a hazardous by-product of rare earth metal mining.
China is already building 26 conventional reactors by 2015, with a further 51 planned, and 120 in the pipeline, but these have all the known drawbacks, and rely on imported uranium.
The beauty of thorium is that you cannot have a Fukushima disaster. Professor Robert Cywinksi from Huddersfield University, who anchor’s the UK’s thorium research network ThorEA, said the metal must be bombarded with neutrons to drive the process. “There is no chain reaction. Fission dies the moment you switch off the photon beam,” he said.
His team is working on an accelerator driven subcritical reactor. “Peope are beginning to realize that uranium isn’t sustainable. We’re going to have to breed new nuclear fuel. If we are going to the trouble of breeding, we could start to use thorium instead, without introducing plutonium into the cycle,” he said.
Thorium has its flaws. The metallurgy is complex. It is “fertile” but not fissile, and has to be converted in Uranium 233. Claims by the International Atomic Energy Institute in 2005 that it has “intrinsic resistance” to proliferation but have since been qualified. It could be used as feedstock for bombs, though not easily.
Yet it leaves far less toxic residue. Most of the mineral is used up in the fission process, while uranium reactors use up just 0.7pc. It can even burn up existing stockpiles of plutonium and hazardous waste.
Cambridge scientists published a tantalising study in the Annals of Nuclear Energy in February showing that it is possible to “achieve near complete transuranic waste incineration” by throwing the old residue into the reactor with thorium.
In other words, it can help clean up the mess left by a half a century of nuclear weapons and uranium reactors, instead of transporting it at great cost to be encased in concrete and buried for milennia. It is why some `greens’ such as Baroness Worthington — a former Friends of the Earth activist — are embracing thorium. Though there are other reasons.
The thorium molten salt process takes place at atmospheric pressures. It does not require the vast domes of conventional reactors, so costly, and such an eyesore.
You could build pint-size plants largely below ground, less obtrusive than a shopping mall, powering a small town the size of Tunbridge Wells or Colchester. There would be shorter transmission lines, less leakage, and less risk of black-outs. The elegance is irresistible.
Mr Sorensen says his group Flibe Energy is exploring 250 MW reactors that could be tailor-made to power a single steel plant. Imagine the benefits for China, which drives is collosal steel industry — 40pc of the world’s total — with high-polluting coking coal, much of it shipped from distant mines in lorries.
Mr Sorensen said his molten salt design could not cause a meltdown because it never reaches a high enough temperature to melt the nickel-alloy vessel.
If there is an emergency, a plug melts and the salts drain into a pan. “The reactor saves itself,” he said.
Major players in the nuclear industry have had a vested interest in blocking thorium. They have huge sunk costs in the old technology, and they have bent the ear of cash-strapped ministers.
The hesitance of governments is understandable, but the costs are going to hit whatever they do. The overrun fiasco of Areva’s Olkilouto reactor in Finland is not pretty either, and the UK’s new reactor plans for Hinkley tempt fate as well.
China’s dash for thorium is now changing the game. Britain has begun to hedge its bets. Chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington said in September that the benefits of thorium are “often overstated” but conceded “theoretical advantages regarding sustainability, reducing radiotoxicity and reducing proliferation risk”.
He noted rising global interest. “It may therefore be judicious for the UK to maintain a low level of engagement in thorium fuel cycle research.” A bit lame for a country that once pioneered nuclear physics, but better than nothing.
Xu Hongjie, the director of the Shanghai project, says the US Energy Department has begun to take a close interest in China’s plans and is now seeking “collaberation”. He is also talking to the Russians. The Indians are kicking their thorium programme into higher gear.
You can view it as a technology race or a joint venture in the common interest. It hardly matters which. If the Chinese can crack thorium, the world will need less oil, coal, and gas than feared. Wind turbines will vanish from our landscape. There will less risk of a global energy crunch, less risk of resource wars, and less risk of a climate tipping point.
Who can object to that?