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U.S. & China Collaborate on Thorium Nuclear Power Research

By Brian Westenhaus | Mon, 02 July 2012 20:34 | 8

Mark Halper writing for SmartPlanet reports the U.S. Department of Energy is quietly collaborating with China on an alternative nuclear power design known as the molten salt reactor that should run on thorium for fuel.

According to a March presentation at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) on thorium molten salt reactors, Peter Lyons DOE’s assistant secretary for nuclear energy is co-chairing the partnership’s executive committee, along with Jiang Mianheng from the CAS.

CAS is a Chinese government group overseeing about 100 research institutes. The CAS and the DOE have established what CAS calls the “CAS and DOE Nuclear Energy Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding.”

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 prime reason for China’s interest in thorium is it has an ample supply of thorium, which occurs in monazite, a mineral that also contains rare earths, the metals that are vital for industrial production of most high tech products. China dominates the world’s rare earth market and is believed to be sitting on substantial stockpiles of thorium that it has already extracted from the rare earth mining and processing.

China is said to be 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.

The deal with the DOE is an effort to better understand the workings of the molten salt variety, which the U.S. has already build, run, and tested – over 40 years ago.  No industrial espionage needed – the information and technical advice seems to be part of the deal.

What isn’t known is what the U.S. gets from the deal.  So much for an open and accountable government – again.  Oddly, the U.S. could have chosen to commercialize thorium-fuelled reactors and by now would be a massive leading exporter of reactors.

It looks like a one-way technical flow for now.  At least China can get going and offer the world a better reactor than uranium fuelled light water designs.  When that happens weapons proliferation worries could be reduced.

Meanwhile in India, at about the same time, came the announcement India is planning to establish a nuclear power plant that uses thorium.  Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) chairman R K Sinha said, “It is natural for India to go for thorium reactors given the abundance in its supply in the country. We are in the process of selecting an appropriate site for establishing one.”  Sinha said the country already has the technological know-how to use thorium. However, for large-scale use of thorium, the country will need two decades adding, “We have to assess the thorium-powered reactor on various aspects in the long-term before replicating similar models in bigger ways.”

India may seem to be going much slower than the Chinese.  Since the international embargo after the 1974 Indian nuclear test, India has developed almost 100% indigenous technology for their nuclear program, making India self-reliant on nuclear energy.

India could very well choose to accelerate their effort, most of the U.S. materials are available either though a government deal or from private concerns looking for a partner.  They could catch up and surge ahead very quickly.

Both China and India are energy hungry and have capital to allocate. The U.S. has debt and intellectual property.  But there is little hope the current U.S. government realizes what a boon they offer.

There is also competition.  Russia has also run its early research and could offer their intellectual property, too.  However getting paid might be a very difficult proposition.

Two countries are heading into thorium-fuelled reactors.  A third is playing along with its load of old knowhow and one can bet the competition will be on site soon as well.

This bodes well for thorium reactors getting underway.  It doesn’t bode well for America.  The U.S. investment is being lost to others for their economic benefit.  Still, over the coming decades thorium reactors could get very small, low cost and quite safe.

With the U.S. government deeply regulating and delaying every part of nuclear power it comes as no surprise that up and coming countries would seize the opportunity.  Thorium will get going, in a cheap mass produced way, operating much like what the U.S. ran over 40 years ago.

Since then a lot of intellectual property on liquid fluoride cooled thorium fuelled reactors has been developed privately and will likely go on sale soon.  Too bad those high tech jobs, the new innovations and the sales, profits and taxes will all occur in other countries.

But that’s what happens when the leadership is political and regulatory instead of creative and entrepreneurial.

By. Brian Westenhaus

Source: Two & a Half Nations Start Thorium Nuclear Power Research

Leave a comment

  • Rob Weekes on November 14 2014 said:
    Could that be Stephen Boyd in the comments? Love hearing you talk on youtube! lol
  • Average citizen on October 24 2012 said:
    One can suppose that the uranium nuclear power investors are blocking the development of thorium power in the U.S?

    Is China being paid for their loans to our nation with this information?

    Will several Fukushima incidents with U.S. plants change the government and national mind? Many old-fashioned nuclear plants remain closed in Japan as the accident site continues to pollute.

    Will people migrate away from the U.S. to some other land of opportunity?

    Will the mindset of exploiting the new land [U.S.] as a colony continue, or will some people see the U.S. as a permanent home and work to develop it as a lasting possession?
  • Joseph on July 05 2012 said:
    @stephen: you can contact me at rareearthsolar dot com. Not quite sure that caveat flies with me though ;-). My biggest hang up is I'm too proud of an American to just leave and gift another country with this. If it's broken, you fix it...and right now this country needs some fixing. Obviously we are at a major disadvantage as the Chinese resources are considerably larger than we will ever have on the US side. However, what we lack in money we can make for in creativity and drive. That obviously isn't directed at the country as a whole, but I do believe there are a few still around that fit that mold and will be more than willing to lend their services to this issue.
  • Mel Tisdale on July 05 2012 said:
    At last, common sense prevails.

    What we need to do now is try and get the word 'nuclear' from the description. That would stop the environmental brigade from having their 'knee-jerk' reaction where they automatically oppose anything associated with nuclear energy, no matter how sensible it might be.

    It would be nice to think that the U.K. might follow, but I doubt it. Too many vested interests (and party donations) in the nuclear status quo, I'm afraid.
  • stephen on July 04 2012 said:
    @Joseph - Please contact me at your earliest convenience if you'd like to move forward with commercialization. The only caveat is that we will not be doing it in the U.S.

    Unless some sort of critical momentum is achieved in Congress, we in the U.S. will simply lose this race. I have engaged several members of Congress on the Thorium issue, as well as a two-star general, as I am one of those scientists to whom you refer. HOWEVER, Canadians are clearly much more intelligent than Americans: they have the entrepreneurial spirit and the friendly political and legislative landscape to pull this off.
  • Citizen Cane on July 04 2012 said:
    Some times, I wonder what Alex Tocqueville would write about American Democracy, if he were to be alive today.The US has sanctioned nations, assisted opposition movements, made attempts to assassinate heads of states,send American troops to help rebel forces,even declare war against other countries around the world, all in the name of "promoting democracy and human rights" because all Americans supposedly cherish the idea of "Freedom". And yet, a regime that suffocates 1.35 billion people every second of every day of every year, a communist oligarchy that has embraced a policy of exterminating the 6 million Tibetan population and a country that has placed the bulk of its nuclear strike force pointed at the US, enjoys the luxury of American friendship and generosity. Why is China so special and countries like North Korea, Iran and Cuba at the receiving end of American wrath? Has any one heard of American apprehensions about the decline of "pure democracy" in Russia since the advent of Vladimir Putin? I would guess that Tocqueville, as observant as he was as a political scholar and commentator, would call it the "hypocrisy of the industrial aristocracy". And by the way, what in the world is "US-India Strategic Partnership"? What a cruel joke?
  • Joseph on July 03 2012 said:
    The biggest problem thinking that american entrepreneurship can still do something is the assumption that we have not been trying. There are several groups of scientist trying to get legislation past just to allow us to do the research. However, we are being blocked by the Congress, the NRC, the DOE and national laboratories. You are wrong thinking there aren't people out there ready to fund them..cause there is. I have several individuals myself lined up that can get us along way to commercialization...but as of right now, we are still not allowed to research it. Goes to show that there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than complacency.
  • Dr. Eli Seggev on July 03 2012 said:
    It is indeed a pity that so far we have failed to recognize, as a nation, the potential benefits of developing thorium-based energy using malted salt reactor technology. However, there is still time for American entrepreneurship to take up the challenge that the political leadership has unfortunately shied away from. We have the required skills, we have the (national) labs, and we have a tradition of mounting huge projects on a compressed schedule. What we don't have is a person, company, or consortium to fund such a project, which requires $2 -$5 billion to see it to fruition. But that is not because we lack billionaires; I believe it is because they are not aware of the possibilities and the benefits that would accrue to them individually and to the nation as a whole. Perhaps ironically, this situation calls for an act of patriotism, which I am sure you will agree still exists. I think people like Gates, Bloomberg, Buffett, Ellison, etc. would like to hear the thorium story. How can that be done? It seems to me that it would be fairly simple for a leading university to invite the Forbes billionaires to a whole day seminar where our top scientists and engineers presented the facts, outlined the challenges, and detailed the plans for tackling the challenge. Any thoughts?

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