An experimental nuclear reactor that uses thorium instead of uranium as fuel and liquid salt instead of water as a coolant is scheduled to go into test operation in Wuwei, China, before the end of September.
With thorium as fuel and liquid salt as coolant, the People’s Republic of China wants to take a significant step forward on the road to climate-neutral energy production. A first test reactor is now in place. On the edge of the Gobi Desert, in the Chinese town of Wuwei in Gansu Province, a two-megawatt reactor is to go into test operation this month.
Thorium power plant suitable for everyday use planned by 2030
As the science journal Nature reports, China is a world leader in thorium reactors. The People’s Republic is most likely to succeed in commercializing the technology. Western scientists also see great potential in thorium and molten salt reactors. Lyndon Edwards, a nuclear engineer at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation in Sydney, for example, sees thorium, which is much more productive than uranium, as a technology that could be very useful in 50 or 100 years when uranium reserves run out. For this to happen, however, it would have to be developed at the present time, because it would certainly take decades before it was ready for series production.
In China, development progress is expected to be much faster. The state research program for molten salt reactors has been running since 2011. The state has invested around half a billion US dollars so far. If the experiments in the Wuwei thorium reactor are successful, the People’s Republic wants to build a reactor with a capacity of 373 megawatts of electricity by 2030. Compared with a medium-sized conventional nuclear power plant, which can generate around 1,400 megawatts, this would still be relatively low, but such a plant would come close to the typically rated output of today’s power plants that run on coal or gas.
Thorium is a waste product for China’s mining industry
Thorium is an obvious energy source for the People’s Republic. While uranium has to be imported at a high cost, thorium is a waste product from the mining of the so-called rare earth, in which China is also the world leader. Thorium is a weakly radioactive, silvery metal that occurs naturally in rocks and is currently hardly used industrially.