Chinese going for broke on thorium nuclear power, and good luck to them
The nuclear race is on. China is upping the ante dramatically on thorium nuclear energy. Scientists in Shanghai have been told to accelerate plans (sorry for the pun) to build the first fully-functioning thorium reactor within ten years, instead of 25 years as originally planned.
“This is definitely a race. China faces fierce competition from overseas and to get there first will not be an easy task”,” says Professor Li Zhong, a leader of the programme. He said researchers are working under “warlike” pressure to deliver.
Good for them. They may do the world a big favour. They may even help to close the era of fossil fuel hegemony, and with it close the rentier petro-gas regimes that have such trouble adapting to rational modern behaviour. The West risks being left behind, still relying on the old uranium reactor technology that was originally designed for US submarines in the 1950s.
As readers know, I have long been a fan of thorium (so is my DT economics colleague Szu Chan). It promises to be safer, cleaner, and ultimately cheaper than uranium. It is much harder to use in nuclear weapons, and therefore limits the proliferation risk.
There are ample supplies of the radioactive mineral. It is scattered across Britain. The Americans have buried tonnes of it, a hazardous by-product of rare earth metal mining.
As I reported in January 2013, China’s thorium project was launched as a high priority by princeling Jiang Mianheng, son of former leader Jiang Zemin. He estimates that China has enough thorium to power its electricity needs for “20,000 years”.
The project began with a start-up budget of $350m and the recruitment of 140 PhD scientists at the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear and Applied Physics. It then had plans to reach 750 staff by 2015, but this already looks far too conservative.
The Chinese appear to be opting for a molten salt reactor – or a liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) — a notion first proposed by the US nuclear doyen Alvin Weinberg and arguably best adapted for thorium.
This in entirely different from thorium efforts in the West that rely on light water technology used in uranium reactors. The LFTR has its own problems, not least corrosion caused by the fluoride.
“We are still in the dark about the physical and chemical nature of thorium in many ways. There are so many problems to deal with but so little time,” said Prof Li.
The great hope for thorium is that it could restore faith in the safety of nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster. It can be done on a much smaller scale, at atmospheric pressure, without the need for the vast structures than encase uranium reactors. You could have micro LFTRs for each steel mill or a small town, hidden away, almost invisible.
The British have an (underfunded) research project – ThorEA – anchored at Huddersfield University under Professor Robert Cywinksi. He says the technology is intrinsically safer since the metal must be bombarded with neutrons to drive the process. “There is no chain reaction. Fission dies the moment you switch off the proton beam,” he told me.
Thorium may at least do for nuclear power what shale fracking has done for natural gas, but on a bigger scale, for much longer, and with near zero carbon dioxide emissions.
China’s thorium drive is galling for the Americans. They have dropped the ball. As I reported last year, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee actually built a molten salt thorium reactor in the 1960s. It was shelved by the Nixon Administration. The Pentagon needed plutonium residue from uranium to for 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 – entirely legitimately – after reading an article in the American Scientist extolling thorium. His team concluded that a molten salt reactor may be the answer China’s prayers. It is playing out just as he hoped.
The Chinese are currently building 28 standard reactors – by far the biggest nuclear push in the world – and working on several research and development fronts at once. This is to break what it calls a “scary” dependence on imported fuel, but also to fight pollution.
The Hefei Institute of Physical Science in Anhui has just finished building the world’s largest experimental platform for an accelerator reactor that burns nuclear fuel with a powerful “particle gun”.
Professor Gu Zhongmao from the China Institute of Atomic Energy cautioned against too much exuberance on so-called fourth-generation reactors. “These projects are beautiful to scientists, but nightmarish to engineers,” he told the SCMP.
UK and China sign £20m low carbon innovation deal
The UK and China have signed a £20 million agreement to work together in developing innovative low carbon technologies.
The three-year programme will support research to develop new low carbon methods of manufacturing processes and technologies, urban living and offshore renewable energy production in the two nations.
Under the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), both the countries will each commit £10 million of “matched resources”, with approximately £6.6 million available each year.
Energy Minister Greg Barker welcomed the programme saying: “Investing in innovation and science is essential for both the UK and China to address energy supply issues and meet emissions targets as well as drive long-term economic growth. In the UK we have ring-fenced a science budget worth £4.6 billion per year and invested £29 million in joint projects with China.”
Read more here http://www.energylivenews.com/2014/03/07/uk-and-china-agree-20m-low-carbon-innovation-deal/?utm_source=feedly&utm_reader=feedly&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=uk-and-china-agree-20m-low-carbon-innovation-deal
Source: Energy Live News
Growing nuclear industry becomes a global power
Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear corporation, has concluded a record number of transactions this year for the construction of nuclear power plants. Rosatom will build the first nuclear power plants in Bangladesh and Jordan, expand its presence in China and India with the help of new power units, and build the Hanhikivi-1 nuclear power plant (NPP) in north-west Finland. The company is also negotiating an agreement on co-operation with South Africa.
Rosatom has 19 orders for the installation of similar reactors abroad and is building eight such reactors in Russia.
“In my opinion, the most important quality of Russian companies is the package proposal they come with to a potential customer,” said the independent nuclear expert Alexander Uvarov. This can be demonstrated by the example of South Africa, where a conference of nuclear suppliers, Atomex-Africa, was held last month. According to Mr Uvarov, the Russians have not only invited South African companies into the supply chain for new nuclear projects, but also offered the new partner a huge range of options for development of the entire spectrum of the nuclear fuel cycle.
These range from the establishment of research and education centres and the development of medical isotopes to a reactor and an enterprise for nuclear fuel production. In addition, Russian companies can provide up to 85% financing for nuclear power plant projects through export credits.
Rosatom’s achievements in 2013 suggest that its confidence for continued success in the future is not misplaced. It is too early to talk about specific technologies, but it is highly likely that Russian nuclear power plants generating electricity will appear in Britain in the coming years.
Source: Russia: Beyond the Headlines