Chinese teams have designed and built and are now commissioning an experimental thorium-powered molten salt reactor. This is exciting news for those who have long advocated for thorium-based energy. It is also a sad and poignant moment for the US’s atomic energy legacy, that China is smart enough to do what we will not.
The very first prototype molten-salt reactor (MSR) was developed and tested by the United States in the 1960s and 70s at the Oak Ridge National Laboratories under the direction of Alvin Weinberg. The design tested the use of a thorium-fluoride salt liquid which used Thorium 232 as the fertile material and Uranium 233 as the fissile fuel. This prototype experiment was known as the MSRE (Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment) and it operated successfully for almost five years before it was discontinued for a range of mostly political reasons.
According to the Thorium Energy Alliance, a non-profit educational group working to preserve the history of molten-salt development in the US and to lay the foundation for the use of thorium energy in the future, Interest in thorium has remained strong. The reason is simple: Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) holds significant technical, economic and safety advantages over traditional nuclear power plants.
By dissolving the uranium and thorium into salts of lithium and beryllium kept hot enough to stay liquid, you do not need to produce fuel rods or pellets, which saves considerable costs. Plus, the liquid salts are so chemically stable, they are virtually imperious to damage from the high temperature, neutrons or radiation, that they will not corrode the vessels that contain them. Although thorium is 4 times more abundant than uranium, one ton of thorium can produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium or the equivalent of 3.5 million tons of coal. This means that with greater energy potential and fewer production costs, a LFTR could be developed at a fraction of the cost of a traditional nuclear reactor, while also being significantly safer.
Unfortunately, under the current NRC regulator (which has only ever licensed light water reactors), U.S. developers have been unable to license even prototypes of next-generation LFTRs, so now, the lead in this very promising technology has moved to China. According to WNN, construction of an experimental 2 MW thermal Molten-Salt Reactor began in September 2018 in Wuwei City, in the Gansu province of China and was reportedly completed in August 2021. That would mean this experimental plant took just three years to build. It has now been reviewed and approved for commissioning by the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment.
[Aside: China clearly has a much better understanding of the critical role that nuclear power plays in protecting the environment than the US does, because it has new nuclear reactors approved by its “Ministry of Ecology and Environment.” If the US were to rename the Nuclear Regulatory Commission the Commission on Regulation of Energy and Ecology, it might actually do its job better.]
UPDATE: The US NRC accepted a construction permit application from Abilene Christian University (ACU) to build a molten salt research reactor (MSRR) on Nov. 18, 2022. In a letter dated Dec. 16, 2022, the NRC estimates that the date that the permit review will be complete is in May 2024.