Are you intrigued by the possibility of using nuclear reactors to limit emissions, but worried about their water consumption and long-term safety? A solution may be imminent. LiveScience reports that China has outlined plans to build the first “clean” commercial nuclear reactor using liquid thorium and molten salt.
The first prototype reactor should be ready in August, the first tests should take place in September. A large commercial reactor should be ready by 2030.
In addition to being greener, the technology should also alleviate some political controversy. Conventional uranium reactors produce waste that remains extremely radioactive for up to 10,000 years and requires lead containers and extensive safety measures. The waste also includes plutonium-239, an isotope important for nuclear weapons. You also risk spilling dramatic amounts of radiation in the event of a leak, as in Chernobyl. They also require large amounts of water, which precludes use in dry climates.
Thorium reactors, however, dissolve their key element in fluoride salt, which primarily emits uranium-233, which you can recycle through other reactions. Other remnants of the reaction have a half-life of “only” 500 years – still not spectacular, but much safer. In the event of a leak, the molten salt cools down to such an extent that it effectively seals the thorium and prevents significant leaks. The technology does not require water and cannot easily be used to make nuclear weapons. You can build reactors in the desert, far from most cities, and without expressing any concern that doing so will lead to the nuclear weapon stocks.
China is building the first commercial reactor in Wuwei, a desert city in the country’s Gansu province. Officials also see this as a way to fuel China’s international expansion – up to 30 are planned in countries participating in the company’s Belt and Road investment initiative. In theory, China can expand its political influence without contributing to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
That could worry the US and other political rivals lagging behind on thorium reactors. The US sodium reactor, for example, is still under development. Even so, it could go a long way in combating climate change and helping China achieve its goal of becoming climate neutral by 2060. The country is still heavily dependent on coal energy, and there is no guarantee that renewable energy alone will meet demand. Thorium reactors could help China wean itself off coal relatively quickly, especially small reactors that could be built over shorter periods of time and fill in gaps where larger plants would be overkill.
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