Tuesday, 10 July 2012

China and the god of thunder

Thorium (named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder) is a mildly radioactive metal which can be used as a fuel for nuclear reactors. It has some very enthusiastic proponents who think the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (acronym LFTR; spoken as lifter) is the energy source of the future. China seems to agree.

Even though the technology has been known for decades, its potential was never developed because other technologies are more suited to producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. Yet LFTR is said to have many attractions.

Thorium is far more abundant than uranium – at least three-fold.
Thorium does not need enrichment.
Thorium is only mildly radioactive and easy to handle.
LFTRs are small.
LFTRs are safe.
LFTR does not generate plutonium.
LFTR cannot be used to obtain material for nuclear weapons.
LFTR waste has a much shorter half-life than uranium-powered reactors.
LFTR can be used to destroy current stocks of plutonium.
LFTR is cheaper than traditional nuclear.
LFTR consumes all its thorium fuel.

Thorium consumes its own hazardous waste. It can even scavenge the plutonium left by uranium reactors, acting as an eco-cleaner. Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA rocket engineer, now chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering, and closely watched Internet commentator and educator says,

“It’s the Big One, once you start looking more closely, it blows your mind away. You can run civilization on thorium for hundreds of thousands of years [*], and it’s essentially free. You don’t have to deal with uranium cartels.”

He’s right; thorium is so common that miners treat it as a nuisance, a radioactive by-product when they dig up rare earth metals. The U.S. and Australia are full of the stuff. So are the granite rocks of Cornwall in the UK. Some beaches in India are loaded with thorium. Not so much mining is needed: all thorium is potentially usable as fuel, compared to just 0.7% from uranium as much of the uranium has already decayed.

* To me this figure seems enthusiastic to put it mildly.

In October this year, the Twelfth Thorium Energy Conference (ThEC12) will be held in Shanghai. It is billed as the event of the year for everyone with an interest in the future of thorium energy and its many related fields.

Last month, smartplanet reported:-

The U.S. Department of Energy is quietly collaborating with China on an alternative nuclear power design known as a molten salt reactor that could run on thorium fuel rather than on more hazardous uranium, SmartPlanet understands.

In fact, while the EU bumbles around with technologies that don’t work, such as solar and wind power, while it goes all sniffy over shale gas, China seems to have latched onto the potential of LFTR.

If adopted on a large scale, LFTRs will probably be factory built for installation on site. A few large factories may well supply all global requirements. Where will those factories be? There is also R&D work to be done too, which means there are likely to be discoveries and developments to be patented.

So, safe, factory-built reactors using a fuel much more abundant that uranium with opportunities for developing patented technology. Is China serious about thorium? 

From Wenhui News (Google Chinese to English translation)

Thorium-based molten salt reactor, this sounds people Ruzhui the cloud professional term, may, after three or four decades, becoming one of the pillars of China's energy supply.

Yesterday, one of the strategic lead science and technology projects as initiated by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the first batch of "advanced nuclear fission energy - thorium-based molten salt reactor nuclear system" project was officially launched. Its scientific goal is about 20 years, developed a new generation nuclear energy systems and technologies have reached the level of the pilot and owns all intellectual property rights.

As the world's new generation of nuclear reactors is still in the research and development, China has independently developed the thorium-based molten salt reactor, will be possible to obtain all of the independent intellectual property rights. This makes China the lifeblood of the energy to firmly grasp in their own hands.

From China Daily:-

Experts estimate that China has nearly 300,000 tons of thorium reserves, which is enough for the nation to use for 300 years. Identified uranium will only supply the country for 95 years at the current annual consumption rate, according to the Uranium Red Book 2009.

This places Chinese thorium reserves on a par with Turkish reserves. So is that a compelling reason why Turkey may well be admitted to the EU? Always assuming EU bureaucrats finally catch up with the real world. But by then China may well have the thorium business sewn up.

Still – we have our windmills.


Sam Vega said...

If I were the Chinese premier, I would be lobbying hard to make sure that Huhne doesn't get sent down. He's a Godsend to them, isn't he?

Demetrius said...

The implication is that in a rational economic world we should have gone for Thorium long ago. It was the states desires for plutonium for weaponry that drove the nuclear energy industry in that direction.

A K Haart said...

Sam - he is. Mind you, we seem to have a plentiful supply.

Demetrius - yes, we should have gone for it long ago. We had the right kind of people too.

James Higham said...

Thorium, eh? Commercially viable? Can't be used then.

A K Haart said...

James - doesn't clutter up the landscape either, reminding us who is the boss.