China plans to build the first ‘clean’ commercial nuclear reactor

Thorium-based tech produces safer waste and can’t be easily used for nukes.

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Jon Fingas

J. Fingas@jonfingasJuly 25th, 2021In this article: nuclear powerChinanewsgearnuclear reactormolten saltenergythoriumgreenenvironmenttomorrow

Thorium pellets. In India, nuclear energy and secrecy literally go hand in hand. In a rare treat, photographer Pallava Bagla was given exclusive access deep into the heart of India's nuclear weapons laboratory for an unprecedented glimse into India's secret nuclear program. This new reactor, simply called a "Critical Facility", is India's 5th nuclear research reactor currently in operation. To reach it one crosses three tiers of air-tight security with a senior security officer who keeps a hawk's eye on every movement made inside the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Mumbai. (Photo by Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images)
Thorium pellets. Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images

Are you intrigued by the possibility of using nuclear reactors to curb emissions, but worried about their water use and long-term safety? There might be an impending solution. LiveScience reports 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 due in September. A full-scale commercial reactor should be ready by 2030.

The technology should not only be kinder to the environment, but mitigate some political controversy. Conventional uranium reactors produce waste that stays extremely radioactive for up to 10,000 years, requiring lead containers and extensive security. The waste also includes plutonium-239, an isotope crucial to nuclear weapons. They also risk spilling dramatic levels of radiation in the event of a leak, as seen in Chernobyl. They also need large volumes of water, ruling out use in arid climates.

Thorium reactors, however, dissolve their key element into fluoride salt that mostly outputs uranium-233 you can recycle through other reactions. Other leftovers in the reaction have a half-life of ‘just’ 500 years — still not spectacular, but much safer. If there is a leak, the molten salt cools enough that it effectively seals in the thorium and prevents significant leaks. The technology doesn’t require water, and can’t easily be used to produce nuclear weapons. You can build reactors in the desert, far away from most cities, and without raising concerns that it will add to nuclear weapon stockpiles.

China is accordingly building the first commercial reactor in Wuwei, a desert city in the country’s Gansu province. Officials also see this as a way to foster China’s international expansion — it plans up to 30 in countries participating in the company’s “Belt and Road” investment initiative. In theory, China can extend its political influence without contributing to nuclear arms proliferation.

That might worry the US and other political rivals that are behind on thorium reactors. The US-based Natrium reactor, for instance, is still in development. Even so, it might go a long way toward fighting climate change and meeting China’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2060. The country is still heavily dependent on coal energy, and there’s no guarantee renewable sources will keep up with demand by themselves. Thorium reactors could help China wean itself off coal relatively quickly, especially small-scale reactors that could be built over shorter periods and fill gaps where larger plants would be excessive.

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