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Westinghouse enters U.S.-China nuclear collaboration

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It's helping DOE-funded U.S. universities commercialize an alternative nuclear technology known as 'molten salt' in a project connected to country's partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Westinghouse headquarters in Cranberry, Pa, near Pittsburgh. Is this the door to the molten salt nuclear market? Despite public silence on alternative nuclear, Westinghouse is the commercial adviser on DOE's molten salt project.

Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Electric Co. is playing a supporting role in the U.S. Department of Energy's and China's collaborative development of an alternative and potentially safer nuclear reactor - a project for which DOE has funded three U.S. universities, SmartPlanet has learned.

As I reported last week, DOE and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) have been quietly working together on a reactor design that uses a molten salt coolant auguring safer, more efficient and lower cost reactors that operate at higher temperatures than conventional water-cooled reactors.

The Chinese also intend to use liquid thorium molten salt fuel in a molten salt cooled reactor. Some experts believe that the combination of a liquid thorium fuel and a molten salt-coolant would provide a reactor that is much more efficient than today's reactors, and that cannot melt down. Supporters claim that thorium molten salt reactors would yield waste that lasts for only hundreds of years instead of uranium's tens of thousands, and from which it is far more difficult to build a bomb.

Acting Westinghouse CEO Shigenori Shiga.

The U.S. developed a thorium molten salt reactor in the 1960s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but abandoned it in favor of more weapons-prone uranium reactors during the Cold War, a story which author Richard Martin tells vividly in his new book, SuperFuel.

Following my report last week based on a purportedly leaked Chinese Academy of Sciences presentation, a DOE spokeswoman confirmed for me that DOE signed an agreement with CAS last December for "cooperation in nuclear energy sciences and technologies."

Pete Lyons, assistant DOE secretary for nuclear energy, said in an email sent by the spokesperson that,

"These collaborations will strengthen cooperation between the U.S. and China around next generation nuclear technology, helping to advance mutually beneficial technological advancements and grow civilian nuclear power as a safe, reliable and clean source of energy for both countries."

The agreement includes a collaboration on molten salt coolant systems, of which DOE supports a type known as a flouride salt cooled high temperature reactor (FHR) that uses solid fuel and a liquid salt coolant, the spokeswoman wrote.

The DOE has provided $7.5 million in funding to a team from MIT, the University of California Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin to help develop an FHR that could at first provide heat that would would feed industrial processes (rather than generating electricity), she added. Industries such as oil, steel, cement, chemicals and many others rely on high temperature processes, and derive their heat from fossil fuels.

Retired Westinghouse chief technology officer Regis Matzie heads the commercial advisory panel for the DOE-funded molten salt coolant project.

Nuclear advocates believe that small nuclear reactors represent a potential replacement as a CO2-free heat source. Molten salt enthusiasts say that molten salt could provide a particularly effective means for transferring heat, more so than water-cooled reactors.

Charles Forsberg, a research scientist in MIT's department of nuclear science and engineering and the executive director of the MIT Nuclear Fuel Cycle Study, likens the potential for molten salt coolants - currently under development - to "steam before the age of steam." Forsberg also leads the DOE university  molten salt research team.

Westinghouse is advising the DOE molten salt team on how to commercialize the molten salt technology.

In a set of presentation slides about FHRs, Forsberg says that Westinghouse's role is to guide the researchers "on how best to successfully complete their DOE contract in a manner that provides a viable path forward in pursuit of a commercially successful FHR."

The company's retired senior vice president and chief technology officer Regis Matzie chairs the team's advisory panel.

Westinghouse's involvement in molten salt wanders from its core business of building large, uranium-fueled, water-cooled electricity reactors around the world, including in China. Westinghouse's most advanced water-cooled reactor is the "AP1000", which deploys a safety feature known as a "passive cooling" system that does not rely on generators to operate pumps in an emergency. The company is partnered with Japan's Toshiba Corp in the nuclear business.

MIT's Charles Forsberg leads the DOE-funded molten salt research team.

I sent emails to several Westinghouse spokespeople asking for elaboration on their role in the DOE-CAS project. They did not reply by press time. No surprise there - I have sent Westinghouse several inquiries over recent months asking for comments and interviews regarding their interest in thorium and other alternative nuclear technologies, and they have never responded.

Nor is Westinghouse the only conventional nuclear company to refuse me. When I researched my report on alternative nuclear technology for Kachan & Co. last year, neither Areva nor General Electric Hitachi would discuss the subject.

The DOE-funded FHR research team also includes DOE labs Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and Idaho National Laboratory (INL).

Through the collaboration with China, U.S. students could serve as interns at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, according to one member of the team.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee developed a thorium molten salt reactor in the 1960s that the U.S. rejected. Oak Ridge is now collaborating with China on molten salt technology.

The collaboration also includes the development of molten salts for use in solar energy systems that would use molten salts to absorb and store heat from the sun.

On the nuclear side, the DOE spokeswoman said that although DOE is supporting molten salt coolant research, it is not pursuing a molten salt fuel. It is not clear why not - especially considering that DOE's partner, China, is pursuing a thorium molten salt-fueled reactor, and that the U.S. itself developed a thorium molten salt reactor many decades ago.

I've continued to ask DOE for an interview with assistant secretary Lyons. They've replied that Dr. Lyons is traveling and currently unavailable.

Some critics refute Lyons' assertion that the collaboration is good for both countries. They claim that the U.S. is giving away the long term future of energy - thorium nuclear - for the short term financial gain of selling intellectual property.

"DOE is a sellout and needs to be investigated by Congress," a SmartPlanet commenter from ThREE Consulting wrote in after my last story. St. Louis-based ThREE has interests in mining, rare earth minerals and thorium. Rare earth minerals like monazite typically contain thorium, and ThREE is worried that China, which has mined a lot of thorium via its dominance of the rare earth industry, could control the world market for thorium nuclear.

Outside of DOE, Western companies known to be developing liquid thorium reactors include Flibe Energy, Huntsville, Ala.; Thorenco, San Francisco; and Ottawa Valley Research, Ottawa. The reactors are intended both for electricity generation and as a source of industrial process heat. They can potentially provide byproducts useful for fertilizers and for medical applications, and can power water desalination.

Photos: Westinghouse HQ and acting CEO Shigenori Siga from Westinghouse website. Regis Matzie from World Nuclear Association. Charles Forsberg from MIT website. ORNL from Wikipedia.

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure