China to start first tests of molten salt nuclear reactor using thorium instead of uranium

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Chinese scientists are set to light for the first time an experimental reactor that is considered by some to be the holy grail of nuclear power – safer, cheaper, and with less potential for militarization.

Construction of the thorium-based molten salt reactor was due to be completed this month and the first tests should begin as early as September, according to a statement from the provincial government of Gansu.

Thorium is a metallic element with radioactive properties, close to uranium in the periodic table, which was considered an alternative fuel source when the United States first developed nuclear power technology in the 1940s .

The Americans even developed an experimental molten salt nuclear reactor based on thorium at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, but the United States shut it down and ditched thorium in favor of uranium in the early days of the decade. 1970s.

The new reactor, built in Wuwei on the edge of the Gobi Desert in northern China, is an experimental prototype designed to have a power of only 2 megawatts.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s molten salt thorium reactor was shut down in 1969. (

Wikimedia Commons: ORNL

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According to an article published in the Chinese scientific journal Nuclear Techniques by the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, the longer-term plan is to develop a series of small molten salt reactors each producing 100 megawatts of power, enough for about 100,000 people.

The molten salt factories do not use water for cooling like traditional nuclear power plants and can therefore be built in desert areas, according to the newspaper, such as sparsely populated western regions of China.

The first commercial factories using the new technology are expected to be commissioned in 2030.

President Xi Jinping has pledged to make China carbon neutral by 2060.

Nigel Marks, associate professor of physics at Curtin University, said pushing China forward with thorium as a nuclear fuel was an exciting development.

“They effectively reactivated a research program that the United States put on hold in the 1960s,” Dr. Marks said.

“Who knows, maybe in a different climate with different economics, they could make it work.”

A glass bottle with a thin sheet of metal inside and a handwritten label stating
Thorium is much more abundant than uranium, and Australia has some of the largest reserves in the world.(

Wikimedia Commons: W Oelen

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Thorium – named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder – has a few key advantages over uranium.

Thorium radioactive waste only needs to be stored for about 500 years, compared to several thousand for uranium.

It is also much more difficult and time consuming to make military grade uranium from thorium.

Some thorium advocates have even speculated that the United States has only used uranium rather than thorium because it is more useful for making nuclear weapons.

However, Dr Marks said it was “all bullshit”.

“The main reason uranium has been used since the first reactor in the early 1940s is simply because everything works so easily for uranium,” he said.

“There is only one element that can naturally produce a fission reaction out of the box, and that is uranium.

“Thorium, in principle, you can release energy, but it’s nowhere near as easy as with uranium.”

For example, thorium is fertile rather than fissile, which means it needs another nuclear technology, usually a uranium reactor, to restart the thorium chain, he said.

“Chemically it’s a very different element,” he said.

“So things that happen to be simple for uranium, happen to be complicated for thorium.”

EDF nuclear power plant at Bugey, France
New technologies can address some of the safety concerns that many people have about traditional nuclear power.(

Reuters: Benoit Tessier

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India, which could not access uranium for nuclear power plants until 2008, had tried for decades to develop thorium power but never succeeded in making it work, a- he declared.

He said the main thing holding thorium back as a potential fuel source was the cost and risk of developing new technology that might not work or ultimately be profitable.

Dr Marks said the same molten salt technology could just as easily be used with uranium as with thorium.

Using molten salt instead of water means that a reactor cannot melt in the same way as traditional water-cooled reactors.

Molten salt reactors are also potentially cheaper because they don’t need to be pressurized to prevent cooling water from turning to steam.

Dr Marks said China’s approach was not to “keep all of its eggs in one basket”.

“They have a few different technologies, and there are a bunch of different reactor designs that they are pursuing across their nuclear industry,” he said.

“So they give it a go, and I’m really interested to see what happens.”


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