15 Mar 2014

20 Dec 2013 (Reuters) – Scientists in Shanghai, China are attempting a breakthrough in nuclear energy: reactors powered by thorium (an alternative to uranium) and cooled by molten salts Project is run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a government body with close military ties that coordinates China’s Science-and-Technology strategy. The academy has designated thorium as a priority for China’s top laboratories and has a budget of $350 million budget. Surprisingly, it is pursuing this aspect of its technology game plan with the blessing/help of the USA.

China has enlisted a valuable American partner for its thorium push: Oak Ridge National Laboratory; That is where the USA government produced the plutonium used for the USA’s first A-Bombs, and laid important groundwork for the commercial and military use of nuclear power; As it happens, The Oakridge Tennessee lab helped pioneer thorium reactors. The Pentagon, and the energy industry later sidelined this technology in favor of uranium for political reasons (explained later on).Thorium’s chief allure is that it is a potentially far safer nuclear fuel for civilian power plants than uranium. The element also has military applications as an energy source in naval vessels. The technology’s immediate appeal is that both Chinese and American scientists agree that thorium reactors have the potential to be much more efficient, safer and cleaner than the Uranium fueled NPPs in service today.

A USA congressman unsuccessfully sought to push the Pentagon to embrace Thorium technology in 2009, In a further twist, despite the mounting industrial/strategic rivalry with China, there has been little or no protest in the United States over Oak Ridge’s nuclear-energy cooperation with China. Robert Hargraves physicist and thorium advocate. Says:“The U.S. government seems to welcome Chinese scientists into Department of Energy labs with open arms,” He and other experts note that most of the U.S. intellectual property related to thorium, is already in the public domain. At a time when the U.S. government is spending very little on advanced reactor research, they believe China’s experiments may yield a breakthrough that provides an alternative to the massive worldwide consumption of fossil fuels.

MOLTEN SALTS REACTOR (MSR)TECHNOLOGY EXPLAINED The Chinese plan to cool/moderate their experimental thorium reactors with molten salts. This is sharply different from the Pressurized light Water-cooling systems used in most uranium-fueled nuclear plants. Fang Jinqing, a retired nuclear researcher at the China Institute of of Atomic Energy.said: “If a thorium, molten-salt reactor can be successfully developed, it will remove all fears about nuclear energy…The technology works in theory, and it may have the potential to reshape the nuclear power landscape, but there are a lot of technical challenges.” Jiang did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement posted on the Chinese Academy of Sciences website, he said China and the United States “should boost mutual trust and carry out complementary and mutually beneficial cooperation in the study of thorium-based salt reactors, hybrid energy systems and other cutting edge science and technology.” At last year’s Shanghai thorium conference, Jiang described how clean nuclear power would allow China to make a “revolutionary move towards a greener economy.The bet on unconventional nukes, he said, explains why China is the first one to eat a crab” – citing an old Chinese proverb about the individual who dares to make a discovery important to civilization.

CHINA TRYING TO GO “BACK TO THE FUTURE” to the mid-1960s, when Oak Ridge successfully operated a reactor with fuel derived from thorium and cooled with molten salts. The lab also produced detailed plans for a commercial-scale power plant. Despite considerable promise, the thorium test reactor was shut down in 1969 after about five years of operation.

THE DIE WAS CAST AGAINST THORIUM MUCH EARLIER In the early 1950s, an influential U.S. Navy officer, Hyman Rickover, decided a water-cooled, uranium-fueled reactor would power the world’s first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus. Rickover was instrumental in the 1957 commissioning of a similar reactor at Shippingport, Pennsylvania – the world’s first nuclear-power station. At the time Admiral Rickover was a towering figure in atomic energy, and became known as the father of the “U.S. nuclear navy”. With the launch of the Nautilus in 1955, a course was set that is still followed today, with most of the world’s nuclear power generated from this type of reactor. Rickover had clear reasons for his choice, engineers say. The Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) was the most advanced, compact and technically sound at the time. More importantly, these reactors also supplied plutonium as a by-product – then in strong demand as fuel for America’s rapidly growing arsenal of nuclear warheads.  

THORIUM IN USA POLITICS Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), introduced legislation in 2010 calling on the U.S. government to share its thorium expertise. The unsuccessful bill said it was in the USAs “national security and foreign policy interest to provide other countries with thorium fuel-cycle technology, because doing so would produce less long-lasting waste and reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation”. Even though Oak Ridge has been free to proceed, Thorium research was effectively shelved when the Nixon Administration decided in the 1970s that the USA nuclear industry would concentrate on a new generation of uranium-fueled, fast-breeder reactors. for a range of technical and political reasons, not least the public’s fear of nuclear plants, these new uranium reactors had yet to come into widespread commercial use. More recently, Joe Sestak, a former USA congressman and retired two-star admiral, failed in an effort to get the Pentagon to reconsider thorium in 2009. “It is very hard to effect a change in something that has been established for a long time,” he added that he was unaware of the extent of cooperation between the USA and China on thorium technology.

WHAT DOOMED THORIUM RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT? Kirk Sorensen, president of “Flibe Energy”, a privately held thorium-technology start-up based in Huntsville, Alabama said: “The short answer is that uranium was good for bombs and thorium wasn’t,“. Sorensen, a former NASA engineer, has plans to build thorium-fueled reactors for commercial use in the USA. Sorensen has been instrumental in reviving global interest in the groundbreaking work of the late nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg.

URANIUM CARTEL: KILL THE MESSENGER! American nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg, led research into thorium and MSRs when he ran Oak Ridge from 1955 to 1973; Unfortunately, he was eventually fired for his persistent thorium advocacy, but he had some powerful supporters. In his last scientific paper (published shortly after his death in 2003). Nuclear-weapons pioneer Edward Teller called for the construction and testing of a small, thorium-fueled reactor. Oak Ridge remains the ancestral home of this technology. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) lab still has a small research project under way on the use of molten-salt coolants for uranium-fueled reactors. DOE is also funding related research at the Universities of California, Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

GREAT BRITAIN NOW WANTS THORIUM POWER FOR ITS NAVY During 2012, top British naval engineers proposed a design for a thorium reactor to power warships. Compact thorium power plants could also be used to supply reliable power to military bases and expeditionary forces.

USA MILITARY HAS WEAK REASONS TO STICK WITH URANIUM NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS (NPPs) Although Thorium also has military potential for the USA, the world’s most powerful military is reluctant to pursue alternatives to its uranium-fueled reactors, simply because it has operated them successfully for almost six decades.

USA/CHINA LIASSON Jiang Mianheng,( son of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin), and an Electrical Engineer trained at Drexel University in Philadelphia, visited Oak Ridge in 2010 and brokered a cooperation agreement with the lab. The deal gave the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which has a staff of 50,000, the plans for a thorium reactor. In January 2011 Jiang signed a protocol with the USA DOE outlining the terms of joint energy research with the academy. Jiang told a conference on thorium in Shanghai last year that the China’s thorium project “is 100 % financed by the (China) central government…The protocol stipulates that intellectual property arising from the joint research will be shared with the global scientific community. It excludes sharing commercially confidential information and any other material that the parties agree to withhold. The pact also specifically rules out any military or weapons-related research…All activities conducted under this protocol shall be exclusively for peaceful purposes”. Jess Gehin, a nuclear-reactor physicist at Oak Ridge, says the pact allows the two sides to share information about their research added:“The Chinese are very aggressive, and very determined to move forward with this technology…Right now we agree that we should meet routinely, maybe a couple of times a year.”

CHINA’s THORIUM PROJECT IN A NUT-SHELL Project is very ambitious, and well underway Beijing’s long-term goal is to commercialize the technology by 2040, after building a series of increasingly bigger reactors. The Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics is now recruiting nuclear physicists, engineers, project managers and support staff, according to a regular stream of job advertisements it publishes online. Its team is expected to expand to 750 by 2015 and eventually include 1,000 researchers. A director at the Shanghai Institute, Li Qingnuan, and other senior researchers are wooing top young talent across China to join the project. After lecturing on molten-salt reactor technology at Sichuan University in April, Li invited students from the audience to apply for positions at the institute, according to a report on the university’s website. China’s sprawling network of nuclear-research and industrial companies, are gearing up to attend in early June 2014.

THORIUM AND SALTS CONTRACT ISSUED The China National Nuclear Corporation The body overseeing all Chinese civilian and military nuclear programs, has announced that state-owned China North Nuclear Fuel Company had signed an agreement with the Shanghai Institute to research and supply Thorium and molten salts for the experimental reactors. The push into thorium is part of a broader national energy strategy. The government wants to reduce its dependence on coal-fired power plants, which account for about 80% of the nation’s electricity but have darkened/polluted its skies. Nuclear energy is a big part of the plan: China’s goal is to generate 58 gigawatts of nuclear power by 2020, an almost five-fold increase from 12.57 gigawatts today.

CHINA SEES THORIUM POWER AS A HEDGE against the fact that it has 15 conventional nuclear reactors online, and 30 more under construction. Even so, energy authorities are also investing in a range of different technologies for the future, including advanced PWRs fast-breeder reactors, and pebble-bed reactors. China has little uranium but massive reserves of thorium, and are attracted to Thorium as a source of cheaper/safer nuclear power. The fuel could be used to power Chinese navy surface warships, including a planned fleet of aircraft carriers. China’s nuclear submarine fleet has struggled with reactor reliability and safety, according to Chinese naval commentators, and thorium could eventually become an alternative.

Thanks to Reuters 20 Dec 2013 story >


THIS IS A VERY GOOD STORY Mainly because it refreshes our memory of where the USA thorium program had its genesis, met its demise, and the people/politics at large that led to our 100+ Merchant Nuclear fleet of uranium fueled mainly LW-PBWRs From Admiral Rickover (1950s), to Oakridge Labs/1955-1973 (Physicist Alvin Weinberg), to 1970  Pres. Nixon, decision to choose Uranium NPPs as a rich source of plutonium for the cold war, to 2010, and the failed Hatch/Reid which was DOA. in the Senate. It has been a long time, and many fallacious reasons, used to derail a good project which might have already saved many lives worldwide. We should welcome China’s initiative to return to thorium, for NPPs, and wish them well for the sake of all humanity. On the other hand, we worry that their $350,000 budget is way too low for such an ambitious project. By comparison, in today’s economy, it takes about $10 bn. and 10 years to usher a Uranium LW-PBWR (the most common kind). Cost and time (cost of capital) are the main reasons these “transnuclear Spent- Fuel generators” are not being built as before. Speaking as an American, I feel envious the USA is not doing as much nuclear research as China. Sharing past thorium technology may count in important ways, but only if the brokered deal to share in developments prevails.

It is natural for all ambitious nuclear project managers to feel their approach to thorium NPPs is the best. It may be, but we won’t know that until other thorium technologies are tried and compared for their salient characteristics./relative economies. I believe the Chinese Government know that, and is leaving the door open to world and Intra-China competition.  They know that there are already working models of the Liquid Fluoride Thorium reactor (LFTR), in some variants.  India too has a dire need for more energy, and is a burgeoning technical talent/industrial capacity in bloom. Let us hope, that at least in this enterprise, our world needs and climate warming, will override the greed and corruption present in all societies. SUCH FOLKS SHOULD REMEMBER WE ALL LIVE IN THE SAME PLANET, AND IT IS THEIR DUTY TO HELP SAVE IT, OR GAIN ALL AND WIN NOTHING! THORIUM POWER COULD BE OUR SALVATION, BUT ONLY IF WE COLLABORATE TO ACHIEVE IT.


The Chinese central government is accelerating completion of a Thorium cycle reactor to 2024 because of dire need. Smog is killing them. They have the advantage of free access to experimental results of the USAs Oakridge experiments (and an actual working reactor for five years) in the 1960s when Dr. Alvin Weinberg, was chief of Oakridge Labs. As the Chinese are finding out :These projects are beautiful to scientists, but nightmarish to engineers. Nor are different Thorium fuel cycles alone in China’s quest, they are also investigating some “futuristic” (never have been tried) steam generators. We commend this article to your reading because it illustrates colorfully the many benefits of thorium fuel over the U-235 reactors now on line everywhere. > (This is “must read” if you are interested in energy matters.).

Edward Oliver Gonzalez (gonzedo)

March 15, 2014 at 9:11 PM Comments (0)