World’s first commercial thorium reactor approved in China

Crescent Moon Lake in Gansu Province (Laika ac/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Chinese authorities have issued an operational permit for the country’s first thorium reactor. The decision comes two years after researchers at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics unveiled a prototype, which was billed as the first reactor that did not require water for cooling.

The Thorium Molten Salt Reactor project, begun in 2011, has been under way in Wuwei City, Gansu province, in China’s remote northwest.

The National Nuclear Safety Administration’s permit authorises scientists at the Shanghai Institute to operate the reactor for 10 years, during which time they will test its capabilities and limitations.

The reactor has an output of only 2MW, however once its technology matures, it will have a number of advantages over conventional uranium-fuelled designs.

For example, thorium is less radioactive than uranium or plutonium, produces less toxic waste and cannot be used to create nuclear weapons. And because it is in liquid form, it solidifies in the event of a disaster, which would limit environmental damage.

The reactor also has advantages that are more specific to China, since the country is thought to have several hundred thousand tonnes of the element, or enough to meet its total energy needs for more than 20,000 years.

The South China Morning Post comments that the reactor is a significant achievement for China’s nuclear sector, and positioned China as a potential leader in thorium reactor technology.

It may also give it a boost in the intense international competition to develop small modular reactors, or SMRs.

As well as their inherent safety advantages, thorium molten salt SMRs can be located in many types of environments, including remote, desert or off-grid areas. This may have benefits for industries such as mining, which often require reliable power sources far from water or conventional utilities. It may also help power infrastructure on the “belt and road” programme in central Asia.

China is not the first country to build a thorium reactor – Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US built a prototype in the sixties, but never progressed beyond that stage. An earlier project examined the possibility of building a micro reactor for installation in aircraft.

India also looked at the possibility of thorium reactors in the 1980s, but that programme was halted before the development of a commercial unit.

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