China shows a world lead in clean nuclear energy

Earlier this year the Chinese Academy of Science announced plans to finance the development of a programme to develop Thorium Fuelled Molten Salt Reactors (TFMSR). This is the first of four “strategic leader in science and technology projects” that the Chinese Academy of Science will be supporting.

The Head of the Chinese TFMSR programme is Dr Jiang Mianheng, Graduate of Drexel University, with a PhD in electrical engineering. His father Jiang Zemin, was the former President of the People's Republic of China from 1993 to 2003. This gives an indication of the importance the Chinese Leadership attach to the thorium reactor programme.

This is a clear and important endorsement of the benefits of the TFMSR namely:-

  • Excellent nuclear and passive safety features,
  • Greatly improved  proliferation resistance,
  • Significantly reduced high active waste production,
  • Excellent  resource utilisation as a result of the very high burn-up achieved,
  • Overall economics that offer the prospect of being competitive with coal.  

The decision clearly demonstrates China’s commitment to developing the TFMSR as a major energy source for the future. One can only applaud this far sighted decision by the Chinese Academy of Science.

The Academy stated that -“The scientific goal is to develop a new generation of nuclear energy systems [and to achieve commercial] use [in] 20 years or so. We intend to complete the technological research needed for this system and to assert intellectual property rights to this technology”.

Whist the announcement refers to a 20 year programme, rapid progress can be expected in the next 5 years towards a demonstration plant.

This programme will place China at the forefront of development of truly competitive nuclear power suitable for large scale power production as well as supporting desalination, hydrogen production, and other high temperature chemical processing, due to the safe, clean and cost-efficient characteristics of thorium energy.  The TFMSR programme will see China leading the world in the development and application of high temperature materials, and quite probably the use of the Brayton power generating cycle.

It is tempting to speculate about how other countries may react to what many observers see as “a Sputnik moment”, to borrow President Obama’s phrase.  

President Obama in his recent State of the Union speech pursued the Sputnik analogy when he stated that “We're telling America's scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we'll fund the Apollo projects of our time”. He goes on to say “Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all”.

So can we expect to see the Chinese announcement catalyse the countries and researchers who have been working on TFMSR’s for years to put together a team to deliver a second TFMSR programme?

Given the intellectual capital  developed 50 years ago by the talented Team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, under the leadership of the visionary Dr Alvin M Weinberg , it would be surprising if a Team were not assembled and funded to deliver a second TFMSR programme.

This represents a “golden opportunity” for Australia to join an international consortium to develop what, in the opinion of many scientists and nuclear engineers, represents the most promising of the Generation 4 reactor systems. If Australia were to do this, then it would have available a nuclear reactor technology that has high enough temperatures to power hydrogen production and a host of other high temperature chemical processes with no resultant carbon emissions. In addition it would develop a world leading position in high temperature material and metallurgy.

Competition is good for the overall development and deployment of TFMSR technology, given the various technological options that are available.

The World requires TFMSR to meet the challenge of clean energy production in the coming years. The Chinese announcement is a great step forward, which many observers over the years have been arguing for.  The coming months may well see further similar announcements around the world.  

The question is will Australia be able to grasp the opportunity that the development of a TFMSR represents, or will we be buying our reactors and other high temperature technologies from China in 15 to 20 years time?

Gerry Grove-White is a former mechanical engineer who worked as a technical operations engineer on MAGNOX, CANDU reactors and the Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR) at Dounreay in the UK. He is also the Australian representative for IThEO, a not-for profit organisation seeking to promote the adoption of Thorium Fuelled Molten Salt Reactors worldwide. This article is published with the permission of IThEO.

Editor's Note: note text.