LiveScience makes it public that China has outlined plans to build the first “clean” commercial nuclear reactor using liquid thorium and molten salt.
The first prototype reactor should be ready in August, with the first tests in September. A large-scale commercial reactor, it should be ready by 2030.
Technology should not only be more environmentally friendly, but also mitigate some political controversies. Conventional uranium reactors produce waste that remains extremely radioactive for up to 10,000 years, requiring lead containers and high safety. Residues also include plutonium-239, an isotope crucial for nuclear weapons. There is also a risk of shedding dramatic levels of radiation in the event of a spill, as witnessed in Chernobyl. There is also a need for large volumes of water, which is why its use in arid climates is discarded.
Thorium reactors, however, dissolve their key element in a fluorine salt, which mainly produces uranium-233, which can be recycled in other reactions. Other leftovers from the reaction have a half-life of ‘only’ 500 years – not yet spectacular, but much safer. If there is a leak, the molten salt cools enough to effectively seal in the thorium and prevent significant leaks. The technology does not require water and cannot easily be used to produce nuclear weapons. Reactors can be built in the desert, far from most cities, and without raising concerns that it will increase stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
China is therefore building the first commercial reactor in Wuwei, a deserted city in the country’s Gansu province. Officials also see this as a way to promote China’s international expansion – the plan is for up to 30 countries to participate in the company’s “Belt and Road” investment initiative. In theory, China can extend its political influence without contributing to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
That could worry the US and other political rivals behind the thorium reactors. The US-based Natrium reactor, for example, is still under development. Even so, it could go a long way towards combating climate change and meeting China’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2060. The country is still heavily dependent on coal energy and there is no guarantee that renewable sources will meet to demand for themselves.
Thorium reactors could help China get rid of coal relatively quickly, especially small-scale reactors that could be built in shorter periods and fill gaps where larger factories would be excessive.