Safe nuclear power not a pipedream
If China can crack thorium, it will have clean energy for 20,000 years, writes Ambrose Evans-Pritchard.
THE Chinese are running away with thorium energy, giving an edge to a global race for the prize of clean, cheap and safe nuclear power. Good luck to them. They may do us all a favour.
Jiang Mianheng, son of former leader Jiang Zemin, is spearheading a project for the Chinese Academy of Sciences with a start-up budget of $US350 million. He has already recruited 140 scientists working full time on thorium power at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics. He will have 750 staff by 2015.
The aim is to break free of the old pressurised-water reactors fuelled by uranium - originally designed for US submarines in the 1950s - in favour of thorium reactors that produce far less toxic waste and cannot blow their tops like Fukushima.
"China is the country to watch," said Bryony Worthington, head of Britain's All-Party Parliamentary Group on Thorium Energy, who visited the Shanghai operations recently.
"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 believe it could be the transforming technology needed to drive the industrial revolutions of Asia - and to avoid an almighty energy crunch as 2 billion more 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 carbon dioxide 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 test whether they could use thorium at Norway's conventional Halden reactor near 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 - now led by thorium enthusiast Takashi Kamei - is researching molten salt reactors that use liquid fuel.
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 American Scientist two years ago extolling thorium. His team concluded that a molten salt reactor could 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 India, Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan are quickly becoming the biggest threats to world peace.
The Shanghai team plans to build a tiny two-megawatt plant using liquid fluoride fuel by the end of the decade, before scaling up to commercially viable size in the 2020s. It is also working on a pebble-bed reactor. Mr Jiang 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 byproduct of rare-earth metal mining.
China will have 26 new conventional reactors by 2015. A further 51 are planned, and 120 more are 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 Cywinski from Huddersfield University, who anchors Britain'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.
"People are beginning to realise 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 using 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 into uranium-233. Claims by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005 that it is resistant to proliferation 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 0.7 per cent. It can even burn up existing stockpiles of plutonium and hazardous waste, saving on the need to transport it at great cost to be encased in concrete and buried for millenniums.
The thorium molten salt process takes place at atmospheric pressures so does not require the vast domes of conventional reactors.
You could build pint-size plants largely below ground, less obtrusive than a shopping mall, to power a small town. There would be shorter transmission lines, less leakage and less risk of blackouts.
Mr Sorensen's group, Flibe Energy, is exploring 250-megawatt reactors that could be tailor-made to power a single steel plant. Imagine the benefits for China, which drives a colossal steel industry - 40 per cent of the world's total - with high-polluting coking coal.
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?