Nuclear power has kind of a bum rap in Asia at the moment. Given the fact that countries like China don't have the same long storied history with nuclear research that we do here in the United States, the Fukushima meltdown really startled the region.
But there may be a better way, a half-century-old process for creating nuclear energy that's said to be much safer than our current uranium-filled, pressurized-water reactor technology. It's also virtually waste-free, super cheap and difficult to weaponize. Sounds too good to be true, right? That's why China just set aside $350 million to figure out how they can power their country this way.
The key to clean nuclear energy is a naturally abundant element called thorium. Unlike the uranium that we currently use to power nuclear reactors, the radioactive isotope of thorium is relatively safe to store and handle. It's also an abundant by-product of rare-earth mining, a big boon for China which is home to the majority of the world's rare-earth minerals. Scientists first began experimenting with using thorium as a fuel back at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s. The lab's director at the time, Alvin Weinberg, built a so-called molten salt reactor, a variant on traditional reactor design, but abandoned further research as they shifted their focus towards uranium. "The Pentagon needed plutonium residue from uranium to build nuclear bombs," explains Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at The Telegraph. "The imperatives of the Cold War prevailed."
Jiang Mianheng, thorium nuclear proponent and the son of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin
A couple of years ago, though, one of China's princelings Jiang Mianheng read an article about thorium in Scientific American and took a trip to Oak Ridge to fetch the blueprints for the Weinberg's advantageous thorium reactor. He's now the one in charge of the that $350 million budget through China's National Academy of Sciences. They hope that thorium-based nuclear power could solve their country's energy woes as well as their environmental concerns, which continue to present local governments with a steady stream of public protests.
"China is the country to watch," said Baroness Bryony Worthington, head of the All-Parliamentary Group on Thorium Energy, who recently visited thorium operations in Shanghai with a team from Britain's National Nuclear Laboratory. "They are really going for it, and have talented researchers. This could lead to a massive breakthrough."
As you likely have heard in passionate arguments around the web, like other nuclear power, thorium-fueled nuclear reactors produce almost no greenhouse gases, but they also leave fewer radioactive bi-products. Thorium is also far less susceptible to weapon proliferation than uranium. What's more, certain kinds of thorium reactors could burn off existing nuclear waste while generating electricity. Thorium reactors, which don't need to operate under pressure like conventional reactors, can be made with passive safety features that would make them far less susceptible to meltdown or other disasters. In an emergency, a plug melts and the salts drain into a container. (Some newer uranium-based reactors try to emulate this feature in other ways.) And thorium is said to be far more abundant than uranium. India, which is home to one of the world's largest thorium reserves, much of it in the beaches of Kerala, is about to start building its own new thorium reactor.
So if this thorium idea is so awesome, why isn't everybody doing it? Well, in the United States at least, as Motherboard explored in a documentary last year, despite the efforts of some very serious American thorium enthusiasts, we're already too invested in our uranium-based power plants, and, as of now, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other government agencies don't seem very interested in expanding its horizons, especially at a time when nuclear makes the American public uncomfortable, even more so than fracking. Still, little guys like Kirk Sorensen, who appears in the documentary, are exploring building small 250 megawatt reactors that could be tailor-made to power a factory for instance.
Other countries are catching the thorium bug again. Norway's Thor Energy began a test last month with Japan's Toshiba-Westinghouse to see whether they could use thorium in a conventional reactor in Oslo. The Japanese--led by thorium enthusiast Takashi Kamei--are going a step further and researching novel designs for Oak Ridge's molten salt reactors, hoping to beat the Chinese. In September, the UK's chief scientific adviser, John Beddington, said that the benefits of thorium are "often overstated" but had certain "theoretical advantages" in sustainability, toxic waste, and proliferation risk. Given rising interest, "It may be judicious for the UK to maintain a low level of engagement in thorium fuel cycle research."
But at the moment, there's not a single U.S. government-funded program to make thorium a viable alternative nuclear fuel. Mining America's thorium reserves is currently prohibited because its slighly radioactive. As thorium expert Richard Martin reported a couple of years ago in Wired, we're setting ourselves up to be eclipsed by the Chinese on a technology we created:
“If we miss the boat on this, how can we possibly compete in the world economy?” [thorium-miner Jim] Kennedy asked. “What else do we have left to export?”
According to thorium advocates, the United States could find itself 20 years from now importing technology originally developed nearly four decades ago at one of America’s premier national R&D facilities. The alarmist version of China’s next-gen nuclear strategy come down to this: If you like foreign-oil dependency, you’re going to love foreign-nuclear dependency.
Xu Hongjie, director of Shanghai's project, says the US energy department has taken an interest in China's plans and is now seeking a relationship over thorium and the technology that was developed in an American lab four deacdes ago.
See our documentary on the American thorium movement below.
Image via Flickr.