By Mark Halper
Posting in Design
Quiet collaboration on thorium molten salt, a safer alternative to uranium. DOE assistant energy secretary Peter Lyons co-chairs it with son of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. Who benefits?
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.
DOE's assistant secretary for nuclear energy Peter Lyons is co-chairing the partnership's executive committee, along with Jiang Mianheng from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), according to a March presentation by CAS on thorium molten salt reactors. Beijing-based CAS is a state group overseeing about 100 research institutes. It and the DOE have established what CAS calls the "CAS and DOE Nuclear Energy Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding."
As SmartPlanet reported late last year, Jiang - the son of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin - led a Chinese delegation visiting DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory to discuss ORNL's thorium molten salt reactor (MSR) technology. Some sources identify him as a vice president of CAS. ORNL developed a thorium MSR in the 1960s.
The 48-page presentation, entitled "TMSR Project of CAS" (TMSR stands for thorium molten salt reactor) is dated March 12, 2012 throughout, except on the cover page, which gives a March 18 date. It names the author as Xiaohan Yu from CAS' TMSR Research Center, based at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics.
The abbreviation "UCB" also appears on the cover page, suggesting that Yu (I believe his Chinese name is Yu Xiaohan, Americanized to Xiaohan Yu in the presentation) delivered his talk at the University of California Berkeley on the 18th. One of the scientists working in the alliance is John Arnold, a UC Berkeley chemistry professor. I've sent emails over the last day to Lyons, Jiang, Arnold and several other principles, requesting confirmation and elaboration. No additional information came back by publication time.
A DOE spokeswoman told me, "we are working on responses now and will let you know as soon as possible."
Proponents of thorium MSRs, also known as liquid thorium reactors or sometimes as liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs), say the devices beat conventional solid fuel uranium reactors in all aspects including safety, efficiency, waste and peaceful implications.
Among the claimed benefits: thorium waste cannot be easily shaped into a bomb; the waste lasts only hundreds of years rather than tens of thousands for uranium; thorium in liquid form burns more efficiently than solid uranium; liquid thorium reactors do not operate at dangerous high pressure; liquid thorium reactors cannot melt down.
The U.S. under President Richard Nixon chose uranium over thorium in part because uranium reactors provided the weapons grade waste that was desirable during the Cold War. That set the stage for a uranium-based nuclear industry. Today, solid uranium fuel powers almost all of the world's 434 commercial reactors.
The CAS presentation describes a China that's keenly interested in thorium as a future CO2-free source of power in a country choking on the emissions of its coal fired power plants.
One reason for China's interest in thorium: It has an ample supply of the substance, which occurs in monazite, a mineral that also contains rare earths, the metals that are vital across industries ranging from missiles to wind turbines to iPods. China, which dominates the world's rare earth market, is believed to be sitting on substantial stockpiles of thorium that it has already extracted from the rare earths that it has mined and processed.
The CAS presentation also points out that China has far more thorium than uranium. It notes that China imported 95 percent of the uranium ore it used in 2010. To address its uranium shortfall, China has been buying up foreign uranium mines, including taking control of Namibia's Husab mine in March.
Nuclear currently provides less than 2 percent of China's electricity. But as SmartPlanet has noted, its share will surge as China builds as many as 100 new reactors - nearly a quarter of the world's current total - over the next 20 years.
Those will include conventional uranium reactors as well as alternative designs such as thorium MSRs and fast neutron reactors. (Bill Gates' TerraPower is developing a type of FNR known as a traveling wave reactor. Gates has also discussed a possible Chinese co-operation, with China National Nuclear Corp). FNRs are expected to play a big role in China by 2050.
China is developing at least two thorium reactors, and is looking at molten salt technology as well as at another approach that triggers a thorium reaction by using a particle accelerator - a technique pioneered by Nobel Prize winning physicist and former CERN director Carlo Rubbia.
It is now linking up with DOE in an effort to better understand the workings of the molten salt variety. The collaboration is also investigating "nuclear fuel resources" and "nuclear hybrid energy systems," according to an organization chart (see below) included in the CAS presentation. The DOE's Stephen Kung and CAS' Zhu Zhiyuan serve as "technical co-ordination co-chairs," supporting their bosses Lyons and Jiang, who co-chair the "MOU Executive Committee."
Scientists from ORNL, MIT, the University of California Berkeley, Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and several branches of CAS including the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP) and Shanghai Advanced Research Institute are on the MOU committee (again, see chart below). Two of the U.S. labs - ORNL and INL - are co-managed for DOE by Battelle Memorial Institute, the Columbus, Ohio non-profit science and technology group.
What's not clear is what, exactly, the U.S. will get from the collaboration.
While China has declared an interest in building thorium reactors - including CAS' January 2011 approval of a TMSR project - the U.S. has not. The partnership with China suggests that the U.S. acknowledges a possible role for thorium in its energy future.
But some skeptics worry that the U.S. is foolishly abetting Chinese efforts to advance a crucial energy technology that China could soon control, and thus give China hegemony in two vital areas: rare earths and energy. ORNL, the 1960s thorium molten salt pioneer, has no clear path to commercialization given the U.S. government's lack of commitment to the technology.
Outside of the DOE, at least three companies in the West are privately developing thorium reactors: Flibe Energy, Huntsville, Ala, which has dusted off 1960s ORNL technology; Thorenco, San Francisco; and Ottawa Valley Research, Ottawa. Baroness Bryony Worthington of the UK House of Lords has emerged as the West's political champion for thorium. India, home to huge reserves of thorium, also has ambitious plans. Japanese utility Chubu Electric is considering it. And thorium is picking up attention with the recent publication of the book SuperFuel, by author Richard Martin.
Many of those supporters urge the use of thorium reactors not only for generating electricity, but also for providing carbon-free heat to power industrial processes such as extracting oil from tar sands, or in the metals, chemicals and cement sectors, among others.
They also point out that the reactors could power water desalination, and that they have valuable byproducts that could be used as fertilizers and for medical applications.
China clearly sees many of those benefits as well.
The CAS presentation describes the possible use of thorium reactors as a heat source for various applications, including hydrogen and methanol production.
CAS also points out that molten salt, germane to liquid thorium reactors, can also serve as heat storage in solar thermal power plants in which parabolic mirror warm a fluid that eventually drives a turbine. By storing the fluid's heat, molten salt technology can potentially answer one of the main criticisms of solar power: that it cannot generate electricity at night.
Like thorium nuclear, that would be a development that should equally interest either country. Let's see if technology truly flows in both directions in this new partnership.
Photos and chart: Jiang/Clinton, from David Scull via Wikimedia. All others from page 27 of Chinese Academy of Science's March 12 presentation on thorium molten salt reactors, "TMSR Project of CAS."
More nuggets of nuclear and thorium on SmartPlanet:
- From Fukushima's home country: Nuclear will double
- The Thorium Lord
- Safe nuclear: Japanese utility elaborates on thorium plans
- New Jersey fusion firm ratchets up Iranian collaboration
- Safe nuclear: UK eyes thorium
- Safe nuclear: Let the thorium debate begin
- Safe nuclear: India's thorium reactor
- Fukushima's lesson: 'Alternative' nuclear, not 'no' nuclear
- Nuclear's back. Oh no it isn't! Oh yes it is!
- China grabbing up uranium to secure nuclear lead
- Photo captures Westinghouse's nuclear knowledge flying around China
- Watch replay of nuclear's future, with dash of rare earth
- Why safe nuclear will rely on rare earth minerals
- Meet the future of nuclear power: 8 guys in China
- How nuclear will make oil greener
- The new face of safe nuclear
An all-in-one alternative nuclear guide:
Jun 26, 2012
What I fail to understand is all this insisting on thorium reserves. They mean virtually nothing. While uranium supply could turn problematic for thermal LWRs, all world yearly power needs could be covered by several thousand tonnes of Th. For China's 1 TWe by the middle of century, it's only 1000 t p.a. At such rate, the cost is irrelevant. Even if your encircle China by new Great Wall and occupy Mongolia, it could extract it from several dozens of million tons of ordinary clay. At insane cost of $1000/kg it's less tha $1 per capita. The problem is reactor technology, not fuel supply. Some penny-picking is OK, but do not make it into problem.
This is one way to control a competitor. Hopefully this brings peace and prosperity. [url=http://russian.women-girls.com/]russian women [/url]
"The U.S. under President Richard Nixon chose uranium over thorium in part because uranium reactors provided the weapons grade waste that was desirable during the Cold War." That statement is ridiculous. We were building commercial nuclear power plants with uranium fuel long before Nixon became president. They were based on the design chosen by Admiral Hyman Rickover for nuclear-powered submarines. The submarines needed a very dense, highly-enriched core, so they could operate for decades without refueling. I don't think thorium would have worked for that purpose. In any case, we did not have the technology to make compact, highly-enriched submarine cores with thorium in the early 1960s. I don't think we can even do that today.
our military corporations sell or give or military technology to the Chinese. Our auto industry builds factories There (not here). The Chinese demand every country build there and develop ideas there and leave those ideas and technology there. So are you now clear, Mark? What planet have you been living on anyways?
"Whats not clear is what, exactly, the U.S. will get from the collaboration" I saw a couple of mentions of US Thorium stockpiles - China has Th stocks, too mostly from their already lucrative rare earths business. So that's not it - though, if thorium is a salable commodity, it opens the US rare earths market back up. Otherwise, I think the benefits to the US of a Chinese ThMSR are numerous. First, there's that if China builds it, it gets built. There's a lot of resistance from the American nuclear industry to MSRs that the DoE may or may not be down with. FLiBe Energy is collaborating with the military to get a critical reactor by 2015 as well - but they're pretty much the only game in town so far as the two-fluid, continuously reprocessed design goes. Letting China in on it seems like insurance; we're working for it, but if China gets there first, the USDoE has a plausible prior claim to the IP that built it. They might just forward the design to American nuclear companies with design approval. There are clear benefits to the US having a cheap, low pollution nuclear reactor. We get to start subbing in the new, smaller devices at existing nuclear sites; we can start dropping them into the process heat end of coal plants; they are several hundred orders of magnitude less prone to releases of radiation (it's literally impossible for a loss-of-coolant accident to result in an RoR, for example); they produce orders of magnitude less waste (~ 1/100 of that of conventional nuclear); their waste has a much shorter shelf-life (it's tapped in ~300 years, rather than ~250,000). They would be a silver bullet, if not for the stigma that comes with the nuclear moniker. However, if China has them - well, let's just say the American politic has a jealousy problem. If China - filthy, filthy 2008 Summer Olympics China - is besting us on emissions because of these thorium thingies, well, doggoneit, why don't we have 'em? We invented the derned things! Further, if successful, it means China's energy fleet will run on non-weaponable nuclear; it would further depress the cost of Chinese rare earths - which would be a boon to both of our economies. It would depress the cost of Chinese electricity, which would boost their economy, and keep their prices low - which keeps ours low. There are a lot of reasons it's a good thing China's in this game. It indicates bad things about the state of American research politics - but knowing where you stand is awesome.
After a very cursory look-up, it appears the US has lots of Thorium, perhaps exportable amounts if the EPA greenies let us get them (much like everything else). So, a US-China confab on this works for me.
"The U.S. under President Richard Nixon chose uranium over thorium in part because uranium reactors provided the weapons grade waste that was desirable during the Cold War. That set the stage for a uranium-based nuclear industry." Please stop suggesting that spent fuel from power reactors is 'weapons grade'. It isn't. Weapons grade plutonium was made in reactors built and operated for that purpose, because it involves removing fuel rods after a few months. In that time, some of the U-238 atoms in the fuel absorb a neutron to become fissile Pu-239, but only a few (less than 7%) of those absorb a second neutron to become non-fissile Pu-240. Since swapping fuel rods means taking light water reactors off-line for several weeks, this is only done every 18 months or so. Here's Kirk Sorensen explaining the history of the choice of the plutonium-burning liquid sodium reactor over the thorium-burning molten salt reactor: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbyr7jZOllI
Roy I agree with you that ORNL was not to blame for the bad decisions of the 1970s. The decision to advance Plutonium producing reactors was at the hand of Nixon at the height of the cold war. Today the DoE, NRC and all of the National Labs stand as a unified front against all challengers to the LWR and other non-Uranium solid fuel reactors. Sure, they burn taxpayer money on things that will never work, but that is all part of their defensive strategy. A lot of dedicated people worked hard to change this policy over the last few years, only to have people at the National Labs and DoE undermine our efforts. Now they work for China???s interest.
Forbes disclosed that China was hacking ORNL just a few years ago. Now we just give it to them. DoE is a sellout and needs to be investigated by Congress.
Considering all work on MSR technology at ORNL was terminated in the early 1970s, I am glad to see it resurrected by anybody. The US has dropped the ball and China has picked it up, so at least now the US gets to look at what they could have done. Don't blame ORNL, blame CONgress for terminating the research in the first place. I think the US government is being incredibly stupid by refusing to pursue this technology.