Is China on the road to becoming the world leader in the nuclear energy of the future?

By Karel Vereyken, Nouvelle Solidarité, France

While recent Announcements by French Ministers Arnaud Montebourg and Delphine Batho[1] loudly proclaimed that nuclear power will remain “a sector with a future”, President Francois Hollande just confirmed that in the name of “ecological and energetic transition”, France would be closing the Fessenheim nuclear power plant. He also repeated his commitment to cutting French generated nuclear energy from 75 to 50%, following Germany’s lead to exit the field by 2020. Having produced the likes of Marie Curie, Pierre Langevin, Pierre Mendès-France and Charles De Gaulle, France has always played a pioneering role in this domain. It is therefore ever more tragic that this great world leader in nuclear science has fallen to such a low that its politicians are trying to sell the idea that France could become a world nuclear leader in “plant dismantling”!

In parallel with the ASTRID demonstrator (Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration) steered by the Commissary for Atomic Energy (CAE) of France, a team from the National Center for Scientific Research in Grenoble (NCSR) have reworked the concept of the Molten Salt Fast Reactor (MSFR) associated with thorium, one of six research options retained in the context of the Generation IV forum. Thorium 232, a metal three times more abundant in nature than uranium, when exposed to a source of neutrons, for example in the core of a European Pressurized Reactor (EPR), can be “fertilized”. It is then transformed into uranium 233 and will become in turn, a fissile fuel. While India intends on using it as a solid fuel, MSFRs are based on the use of a molten salt (lithium or beryllium fluorides), serving simultaneously as a coolant, a fuel and a first barrier of containment. Molten salts are also used in solar panels and fuel cells.

The Ideal Reactors

But there is more. The MSFR is a real «all-in-one» kit: a high-temperature reactor whose efficiency is superior to most of today’s reactors and its heat allows for seawater desalination. As a regenerator, it allows for the multiplication of the fuel while crushing waste accumulated by the civilian and military nuclear sectors. The reactor is easy to interrupt, thanks to a passive security system and operating at ambient pressure, it could never turn into a new Chernobyl. Better yet, with the MSFR, half lives of waste in lesser are scaled down to 300 – 500 years, far from the today’s waste half lives reaching millions of years.

This concept, developed and tested in the 1960s in Oak Ridge, USA, was abandoned by President Richard Nixon for reasons which we would ironically consider a benefit today. For one, it didn’t produce enough military-quality plutonium. To this, was added the fact that the U.S. Marines had chosen water-pressurized reactors for all their nuclear submarines, an option also taken by Westinghouse for the vast majority of its reactors built throughout the world for the civilian sector.

The Chinese offensive

While nations of the west spread doubts and fears of this vital technology while chopping their budgets, China is patiently getting ready to move forward in giant leaps and bounds. For China, the aim is not simply to have about one hundred classic reactors produced between now and 2030, but to become a the world leader in the cutting edge “nuclear of the future”, efficient, ecological and much safer than anything yet created. To this must be added the aim of gaining a large degree of energy independence. It is ironic to note that in 2010, 95% of uranium consumed in China came from imports, while due to the abundance of rare earths in its soil, the country is blessed with considerable  reserves of thorium.

In January 2011, the ChineseAcademy of Sciences (CAS) had announced that it would launch a vast project of R&D for thorium-associated MSFR. Three months ago, in June 2012, the American Department of Energy (DOE) signed an agreement of cooperation on this matter with CAS. It is Chinese academician Jiang Mianheng (son of former Prime Minister Jiang Zhemin) who is co-director of the steering committee. He also led the CAS delegation that came to Oak Ridge to discuss the MSFR with former American researchers.

One billion dollars invested

On August 6th, 2012, Ken Chun from CAS, gave a presentation at BerkeleyUniversity in California about the Chinese program on MSFR. In short, China invested 350 million dollars (some say a billion) in the construction of two experimental reactors. Although CAS has hundreds of research centers, the main contributor is the Shanghai Institute of applied Physics (SIAP). China already built a facility that could welcome 500 researchers, engineers and technicians, which currently operates molten salts loops. The first reactor will be studied in details in 2013. Built in 2014, it will reach criticity end of 2015. This first 2 MW reactor which will use thorium in a solid fuel form will be cooled by molten salts. The second reactor, also 2 MW, will reach criticity in 2017. It will use a molten salt liquid fuel. For now, many details are still to be worked out. In any case, according to the success of those prototypes, China will then develop a steering program with a reactor of approximately 10 MW, followed by a demonstration program with a reactor of approximately 100 MW.

China’s objective is not simply to produce those reactors, but to guarantee itself the intellectual property rights linked to the implementation of this technology. Commercially, China is moving to outpace everyone else. Although in the United States, Canada, England and France, a modest awareness is gradually taking shape among researchers, to this day, the Chinese program is the most important national initiative concerning an industry that will permit, not only the creation of medical isotopes but also the production of hydrogen for fuel cells and the mass desalination of water.

Of utmost importance, the development of these advanced reactors will ensure that a condition outside of the current logic of “diminishing resource returns” is created. In this thorium driven economy China will not be forced to rely upon those scarce fossil fuels now monopolized by a handful of cartels steered by the London centered financial oligarchy. As nations allied with China such as Russia, India and Argentina are also realizing that their mutual survival depends upon vigorous nuclear programs in order to become fully energy self sufficient, it can only be hoped that other nations of the west learn their lesson, drop the genocidal practice of “green economics”, and “de-nuclearization” and return to the highly dense energy sources such as Thorium which a modern re-industrialized society requires.

 


[1] Minister of Productive Readjustment and Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy respectively