Are you intrigued by the possibility of use nuclear reactors to suppress emissions, but worried about their use of water and long-term security? There may be an upcoming solution. LiveScience reports that China has outlined plans to build the first ‘clean’ commercial nuclear reactor from liquid thorium and molten salt.
The first prototype of the reactor should be ready in August, and the first tests should be in September. A full-scale commercial reactor should be ready by 2030.
Technology should not only be more environmentally friendly, but also alleviate some political controversy. Conventional uranium reactors produce waste that remains extremely radioactive for up to 10,000 years, requiring lead containers and high safety. Waste also includes plutonium-239, an isotope crucial to nuclear weapons. They also risk spilling dramatic levels of radiation in the event of a leak, as seen in Chernobyl. They also need large amounts of water, excluding use in arid climates.
Thorium reactors, however, dissolve their key element in a fluoride salt that mainly releases uranium-233 that you can recycle through other reactions. The remnants of the reaction have a half-life of “only” 500 years – not yet spectacular, but much safer. If a leak occurs, the molten salt cools sufficiently to effectively seal the thorium and prevent significant leaks. The technology does not require water and cannot be easily used to produce nuclear weapons. You can build reactors in the desert, far from most cities, and without worrying that it will increase the stockpile of nuclear weapons.
China is building its first commercial reactor in Wuwei, a deserted city in Gansu Province, accordingly. Officials also see this as a way to encourage China’s international expansion – it plans up to 30 in the countries participating in the 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 U.S. and other political rivals lagging behind in the Tory reactors. For example, the American Natrium reactor is still under construction. Nevertheless, it could go a long way in combating climate change and meeting China’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2060. The country is still largely depends on the energy of coal, and there is no guarantee that renewables will keep pace with demand on their own. Thorium reactors could help China get rid of coal relatively quickly small reactors which could be built in shorter periods and fill in the gaps where larger plants would be excessive.
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