China Doubles Down on New Thorium Reactor

As the smoggy skies over China's northern industrial cities thicken into soupy murkiness, life spans plummet and citizens are getting testy. Over a billion sullen people would frighten any politician, elected or not. Ratcheting up a response, concerned leaders just pushed to develop a revolutionary thorium nuclear reactor in only 10 years, elevating a long=term research program to an urgent Manhattan Project. Although it's a symbolic gesture at this point, as an attempt to cut down China's destructive reliance on coal, it plays to the country's reputation as the global infrastructure king after building the Three Gorges Dam and nation-wide high speed rail.

To gauge the government's resolve, look no further than Premier Li Keqiang, who told the national legislature on March 5th that the government had declared "war on pollution" (borrowing a handy Washington cliche). Although China is the world leader in clean energy investment, with $54 billion poured into 14 GWs of wind and 12 GWs of solar last year alone, the government has targeted nuclear as an important part of its low-carbon strategy.

Leap-frogging uranium

China hasn't abandoned traditional nuclear, according to thorium-ophile Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at The Telegraph. It's already building 26 conventional reactors to fire up in 2015, with 51 more planned, and 120 more stuffed into the pipeline. But for the government they have a big drawback: a reliance on pricey, imported uranium.

Since China has enough thorium to last for "20,000 years," starting just three years ago, China's Academy of Sciences (an arm of the government) began the long pursuit of a "thorium-based molten-salt reactor system" at the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear and Applied Physics. Originally, its scientists had been given a manageable 25-year mandate to develop the thorium plant - and leap-frog uranium - but a 10-year deadline is pushy by any autocrat's standards.

Ironically, this story leads back to the United States, a slower -moving democracy, and Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA rocket engineer, who, by trying to develop a thorium reactor, has become the 90th element's biggest advocate, which makes him both the Johnny Appleseed and the world's biggest Chicago Cubs fan of nuclear energy. He's definitively American.

Solving the Fukushima problem

Sorenson explained to Evans-Pritchard that his thorium reactors could solve the Fukushima problem: they would operate at atmospheric pressure to eliminate the same hydrogen explosions. If a reactor began to overheat, a plug melts and the salts drain out. "There's no need for computers, or the electrical pumps that were crippled by the tsunami. The reactor can save itself." He's ingeniously practical.

Then he went big-picture and very Spockian, ignoring legacy energy systems, dysfunctional politics, and greed: "Once you start looking more closely, you can run civilization on thorium for hundreds of thousands of years, and it's essentially free. You don't have to deal with uranium cartels." Or humans. He's also insanely rational. And eternally hopeful. A terminal Cubs fan.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee built a molten-salt reactor in the 1960s, but it was shelved by the Nixon Administration. At the time, the Pentagon needed uranium to build nuclear bombs, so the project was aborted. The blueprints were gathered up, archived, and forgotten, until Kirk Sorensen, a young engineer prowling NASA looking for a new research project, found and studied them. Convinced of their value, he later published the results. Although the small thorium research community shared them and reporters publicized them, the US government ignored them; however, China did not.

Taking the technology back to China

Jiang Mianheng, the next link in the thorium story, is the son of former Party leader Jiang Zemin, which makes him a princeling, a rich and pampered member of the ruling Communist government's second generation. That world of privilege and access gave him the clout to bring his thorium project to China's National Academy of Sciences and wrangle a start-up budget of $350m.

Mr Jiang made a special trip to the Oak Ridge labs and obtained the designs - legitimately, just by asking - after reading an article in American Scientist that touted thorium's many benefits. He'd decided that a molten-salt reactor could be the answer to China's ongoing energy and climate crisis. He took this disruptive technology back to China and suddenly it's moved into the mainstream, just like Sorenson has hoped.

A hundred thousand years from now

Under the original 25-year research plan, Jiang's Shanghai team would have built a tiny 2 MW plant using liquid flouride fuel by the end of the decade, before gradually scaling up to commercial size during the 2020s. Now those plans have been jump-started by a nervous regime.

One hundred thousand years from now, if Jiang's scientists managed to develop a working molten-salt reactor that created an energy revolution, Beijing pedestrians will be able to look up into the clear night sky and see an immense, state-sponsored hologram of Kirk Sorenson floating overhead, flashing an eternal Vulcan salute as he sucks up the endless free energy supplied by one of his reactors. Unfortunately, it will be too late to snag a book deal with best-selling author Michael Lewis.

Will Communist leaders survive long enough to see the results?

Images: Shanghai smog, BriYYZ; Kirk Sorenson, Flibe Energy