Wednesday, March 19, 2014

China Bets on Thorium

China is concerned enough about the limited supplies of uranium that it has launched a program to develop thorium power plants. At The Guardian:

The Chinese government emphasizes the ugly health consequences of coal-generated smog and the dangerous economic instability that results when energy must be purchased from other countries around the world. The world’s uranium might be mostly used up, but thorium is plentiful, at least in comparison. Thorium is easier to handle than uranium. It is said to have little potential for weapons use.

There are other things to like about the idea of thorium-power nuclear reactors when compared to current nuclear technology. The “world’s first” line in the Guardian headline is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration — many different thorium reactor design concepts have been tested over the past half century, and generally have been shown to work. A thorium reactor is inherently more controllable than one based on uranium. It has an on-off switch like a normal appliance, unlike uranium that may take a year to cool down after it is turned off. Thorium reactors probably could operate on a much smaller scale than the scale needed for a uranium-based reactor, a thought that has some engineers thinking in terms of thorium-powered computers and cars.

There are also reasons to be cautious. The knock on thorium reactors, like all nuclear reactors to date, is that the cost to build them is greater than the value of the energy they generate over a lifetime of use. Proposed thorium reactor designs are potentially more toxic than uranium-based designs, though this can perhaps be countered with thorium’s greater controllability.

Of all the countries in the world, China has the most to gain from a new mineral-based energy source. The way things work now, China’s prodigious manufacturing capacity could come unplugged with relatively little warning. No one is saying thorium is a simple answer, but if engineers have a few lucky breaks, maybe in ten years, it could be part of the answer.