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DOE Collaborates With China on Thorium Reactors
The U.S. Department of Energy is collaborating with China on thorium-based reactors with molten salt cores, according to a report on Smart Planet. Written by Mark Halper, a United Kingdom-based energy reporter who writes for several U.S. and U.K. publications, the report both confirms what I reported in my book, SuperFuel – that China plans to be a world leader in advanced nuclear technology, including thorium reactors – and outlines publicly for the first time links between the DOE (specifically, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which pioneered molten salt reactor research from the 1960s) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), which is spearheading R&D on advanced nuclear power in China.
China, which plans to build dozens of new reactors over the next few decades in an effort to wean itself off of coal-fired power plants, is exploring a range of advanced nuclear technologies, including molten-salt thorium reactors (also known as “liquid fuel thorium reactors,” or LFTRs, pronounced “lifters”) as well as fast neutron reactors. Bill Gates, a backer of nuclear technology startup TerraPower, has publicly spoken of his intention to work with Chinese researchers to help develop next-generation nuclear reactors. China currently gets less than 2% of its power from nuclear plants.
Thorium, a radioactive element that was instrumental in early nuclear physics experiments of the late 19th and early 20th century, offers several key advantages over uranium as a nuclear fuel. It’s four times as abundant, and its long half-life (around 14.2 billion years, about the same as the age of the universe) makes it safe to store and handle. No enrichment is needed to turn it into a nuclear fuel, and it produces far less waste by volume than conventional uranium reactors. In fact, LFTRs can actually consume waste produced by conventional uranium reactors, processing it into a form that is much easier to store, and which can be used to start up new LFTRs. Most importantly, thorium is useless as a material for bombs.
While individual scientists at Oak Ridge have privately worked to support new thorium reactor development, and several bills have been introduced in Congress to fund thorium R&D, the U.S. government has had no official involvement in the burgeoning worldwide thorium movement – at least until now, according to Halper’s report. The organizational chart below was pulled from a presentation by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It shows a deep level of interaction between DOE officials, U.S. scientists from MIT, the University of California Berkeley, and other institutions, and their Chinese counterparts.
(Source: Smart Planet)
Co-chairing the partnership’s executive committee are DOE assistant secretary for nuclear energy Peter Lyons and Jiang Mianheng from the CAS. Jiang, who according to his official biography holds a Ph.D. from Drexel University, is the son of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin – a fact that has led observers to conclude that the thorium reactor program is backed at the highest levels of the Chinese government.
As I’ve emphasized in my talks about thorium, anything that helps China reduce its dependence on coal is a welcome development. There are many in the thorium movement, however, who see Chinese supremacy in advanced nuclear technology as an economic and security threat to the United States (one thorium activist used the word “treason” in an email reacting to the Smart Planet story). China already controls the world market for rare earths, elements that are used in a variety of high-tech applications including smartphone displays, missile guidance systems, and electric vehicles. Thorium is almost always found in association with rare earth elements, and China is reportedly stockpiling thorium mined as a byproduct at its huge rare earth mines in Inner Mongolia.
“Some skeptics worry that the U.S. is foolishly abetting Chinese efforts to advance a crucial energy technology that China could soon control,” notes Halper, “and thus give China hegemony in two vital areas: rare earths and energy.”
The DOE-CAS collaboration is a key development in an emerging technology that could present one of the major energy breakthroughs of the 21st century. I’ve requested comment from the DOE and others mentioned in the Smart Planet report, and I will update this blog with responses as they become available.