The deadline to develop a new design of nuclear reactor using thorium for fuel has been brought forward by 15 years as China’s central government tries to reduce the nation’s reliance on smog-producing coal-fired power stations, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported today.
The newspaper said a team of scientists in Shanghai had originally been given 25 years to try to develop the world’s first nuclear plant using the radioactive element thorium as fuel rather than uranium, but they have now been told they have 10.
The Post said that the Chinese Academy of Sciences set up an advanced research centre in Shanghai in January 2014 with the aim of developing the world’s first industrial reactor using thorium molten-salt technology.
“In the past the government was interested in nuclear power because of the energy shortage. Now they are more interested because of smog,” Professor Li Zhong, a scientist working on the project, told the Post.
Premier Li Keqiang told the national legislature in Beijing on 5 March 2014 that the government had declared “war on pollution” and measures to tackle the problem included closing coal-fired power stations.
About 70 per cent of China’s electricity was produced by coal-fired plants last year, according to government figures. China’s 21 commercial nuclear reactors generated 2.11 percent of electricity production, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
According to the World Coal Association, China has more than 620 coal-fired power plants.
China had 14.6 gigawatts of nuclear capacity as of 2013, but plans to have 58 GW by 2020 and 150 GW by 2030, the Post said.
Thorium, a naturally occurring slightly radioactive metal, is more abundant than uranium, and research is being carried out into its potential use in nuclear reactors in a number of countries, notably China, India, Russia, Norway, Canada, the US and Israel.
The thorium fuel cycle has several potential advantages over a uranium fuel cycle, including thorium’s greater abundance, superior physical and nuclear properties, better resistance to nuclear weapons proliferation and reduced plutonium and actinide production.
Thorium-based fuels and fuel cycles have been used in the past, but have yet to be commercialised.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency, existing estimates of thorium resources total more than 4.5 million tonnes (reserves and additional resources). US mining company US Rare Earths has said deposits of highly concentrated thorium in the US would be large enough to supply the power needs of the entire country for centuries using thorium-fuelled nuclear reactors.