China has officially announced that it will launch a program to develop a thorium-fueled molten-salt nuclear reactor. If the reactor works as planned, China will lead the world in clean nuclear energy.
Thorium has several advantages over uranium as a reactor fuel.
- Unlike a uranium reaction, a thorium fuel reaction does not produce weapons-usable plutonium.
- Thorium is much more abundant than uranium. The amount of thorium in the Earth’s crust is similar to the amount of lead – about four times as much as uranium.
- All of the mined thorium can be used as a nuclear fuel; whereas only about 0.7% of mined uranium (U-235) can be used.
- The waste from a thorium reactor is toxic for about 500 years – compared with tens of thousands of years for uranium reactor waste.
- The volume of waste produced is less than half that produced by a uranium reactor.
- Thorium could be used in new and even existing reactors without having to make major changes to reactor designs.
See our article on “New” Nuclear – Thorium for more details.
In the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. carried out extensive research on thorium reactors at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. That work was abandoned, partly because uranium reactors generated weapons-grade plutonium as a byproduct for use in atomic bombs.
Other countries, including India, France and Norway, are pursuing thorium-based nuclear technology but China’s new program will be, by far, the largest to date. China has 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.
Many experts see China’s potential development of a thorium-based reactor as this generation’s real "sputnik moment". The Chinese Academy of Sciences announcement explicitly states that China plans to develop and control intellectual property around thorium for its own benefit. The West could conceivably find itself dependent on imported Chinese nuclear technology.
Kirk Sorensen, chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering commented “When I heard this, I thought, ‘Oboy, now it’s happened. Maybe this will get some people’s attention in Washington.”