The Chinese government has requested its nuclear scientists develop the world’s first thorium nuclear power plant by 2024.

In a bid to address the air pollution being suffered by the use of coal-fired power, Beijing wants its Shanghai-based nuclear scientists to drive development of thorium power 15 years sooner than initially scheduled.
China Premier Li Keqiang
Premier Li Keqiang told the national legislature in Beijing on March 5 that the government had declared “war on pollution“, and measures to tackle the problem included closing coal-fired power stations. About 70 per cent of China’s electricity was produced by coal-fired plants last year, according to government figures. Nuclear power stations generated just over 1 per cent.

Smog would be reduced noticeably if nuclear power produced 5 to 10 per cent of the nation’s electricity. China has about 20 nuclear reactors and is building nearly 30 more.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences set up an advanced research centre in Shanghai in January with the aim of developing the world’s first industrial reactor using thorium molten-salt technology, according to a statement from the academy’s Bureau of Major Research and Development Programmes.

All commercial nuclear plants in China, whether in operation or under construction, are designed to use uranium as fuel, but the country has run short of uranium and depends on imports from other countries.

The country has major incentives in pursuing the technology. China has large thorium reserves, at least the world’s third-largest, according to some experts. The extreme heat used in the process may also produce less radioactive waste.

With average energy consumption expected to rise in tandem with the country’s economic development, greater emphasis is now being put on finding an alternative to coal.

Professor Li, director of the project’s molten salt chemistry and engineering technology division, said, “Nuclear power provides the only solution for massive coal replacement and thorium carries much hope.”

Researchers are under incredible pressure to make the project work within an impossibly narrow timeframe and even though the technical difficulties and lack of knowledge about the material militate against an entirely successful solution.

One of the technical difficulties is that the molten salt produces highly corrosive chemicals such as fluoride that could damage the reactor. In addition the power plant would also have to operate at extremely high temperatures, raising concerns about safety.

The United States has experimented with thorium reactors but gave up on the technology because of the engineering difficulties.

Interest, however, has been revived in recent years and research projects have been established in several countries, including the US, France and Japan.

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