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Thorium in China

This blog has promoted the use of nuclear power to help solve our energy and climate change problems, but only if we can solve the problems of nuclear power. One such solution is switching from using uranium as nuclear fuel to using thorium, but so far the nuclear power industry has ignored that solution.

Well, guess who has just made a dramatic investment in thorium nuclear power — China. Scientists in Shanghai have been told to accelerate their efforts, the new goal being the construction of a fully functional thorium reactor within 10 years.

One of the Chinese leaders of the new program says “This is definitely a race. China faces fierce competition from overseas and to get there first will not be an easy task.”

This is not terribly surprising. Severe pollution problems in major Chinese cities gives them a strong motive to take advantage of better and cleaner sources of power.

But it still begs the question — the US originally developed the technology for thorium reactors. Why aren’t we taking advantage of our own technology?

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory actually built a working thorium reactor in the 60′s, but the project was shelved by the Nixon administration, likely because thorium reactors do not produce the plutonium that uranium reactors do, and thus cannot be used to supply the ammo for nuclear weapons.

Are we really that short sighted?

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7 Comments

  1. Z wrote:

    Yes.

    Saturday, March 22, 2014 at 10:29 am | Permalink
  2. PATRIOTSGT wrote:

    I 2nd the Z.

    Saturday, March 22, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Permalink
  3. Max wrote:

    Uranium is cheap enough that there’s no economic motivation. Even if the fuel were free, it wouldn’t significantly reduce the cost of nuclear power.

    Sunday, March 23, 2014 at 12:45 am | Permalink
  4. Dave TN wrote:

    Max, while the Uranium is cheap possibly, the enrichment process is not so much.

    Sunday, March 23, 2014 at 8:13 am | Permalink
  5. Iron Knee wrote:

    Max, you have me laughing. Uranium fuel is not that cheap, plus it is in limited supply. You say “Even if the fuel were free”. Well, thorium is a waste product from the mining of rare earths (which are needed for the screens of computers and phones) and they currently pay to dispose of it, so it is better than free — they will pay you to take it!

    Finally, this does not take into account all the other costs associated with uranium reactors — disposal of the spent fuel, cleaning up after meltdowns (Chernobyl, 3 Mile Island, Fukushima, …), building the safety systems that are required to prevent a meltdown (thorium is not capable of going critical). Plus thorium reactors can be made much smaller and thus located closer to the user of the energy, saving costs for transmission lines.

    Sunday, March 23, 2014 at 4:41 pm | Permalink
  6. PATRIOTSGT wrote:

    We have not built any new reactors since 1977 in this country, and currently operate about 100 that provide approx. 19% of our electricity. In 2012 (thanks President Obama) the NRC approved 4 rebuilds at existing sites. The US nuclear industry has the best safety record in the world, but our reactors are dinosaurs compared to newer versions around the world. Introducing the latest technology Thorium reactors would guarantee a even safer supply of less expensive energy for into the 22nd century. Beyond Thorium we need to develop fusion which can create more energy then it uses (like our sun) and uses Deuterium, which can be distilled from all forms of water including saltwater.

    The future is out there America, lets go get it.

    Monday, March 24, 2014 at 8:36 am | Permalink
  7. Drew wrote:

    If they really did shelve thorium reactors because they don’t produce plutonium, it’s not just short-sighted, it’s backwards. Aside from people consistently overstating how dangerous nuclear plants are, the biggest objection I hear to them is that they produce plutonium. Now that we aren’t immediately sticking that plutonium into our own bombs, we have to find a way to store it securely lest it find its way into the hands of somebody we don’t want to have it.

    Monday, March 24, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink