Continuing its swift transition to greener energy sources, China is preparing to test a new thorium-powered nuclear plant. Thorium is viewed by the scientific community as more efficient and cleaner fuel than traditional materials.
The news comes in the same week Chinese president, Xi Jinping, announced China would cease building coal-fired plants overseas.
Situated on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert in Wuwei, China, the facility was scheduled for completion in August this year, with testing to begin in September. according to the scientific journal, Nature.
Thorium is a weakly radioactive substance that is considered plentiful, relative to traditional materials like uranium. The silvery metal is found in rocks but is also a by-product of rare-earth mining in China. While thorium has very few industrial applications, its unique properties make it an ideal candidate for nuclear energy. It is safer to produce, cheaper and produces far less radioactive waste than the alternatives.
China’s novel thorium reactor circulates molten salts in its interior, whereas conventional reactors use water. Used as a coolant for the reactor core, fluoride-based salts become a transparent, odourless liquid at roughly 450 degrees Celsius.
Liquid salt-cooled reactors are considered safer because they operate at pressures far less intense, greatly minimising the likelihood of catastrophic meltdowns.
Charles Fosburg, a nuclear engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said salt-cooled reactors would likely produce energy far more efficiently because of the increased operating conditions created by the molten coolant.
China has researched molten salt reactors since 2011. Since then, it has invested more than $500 million into the programme, according to Ritsuo Yoshioka, former president of the International Thorium Molten-Salt Forum.
Yoshioka, who has previously worked with China’s nuclear engineers, said while some nations have experimented with molten salt reactors, attempting to create cheaper electricity with uranium and plutonium, none have attempted to use it in conjunction with thorium as fuel.
Lyndon Edwards, an engineer based at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology, said thorium reactors could prove pivotal as uranium reserves may be low or even depleted in little more than a century.
New reactor types could take the place of coal-powered facilities, according to David Fishman, a project manager with the Lantau Group, an energy consultancy in Hong Kong. Fishman said China could retrofit existing coal-plant boilers with new reactors.
At the 2021 United Nations General Assembly, President Xi pledged that China would stop building coal plants. China had been criticised for financing coal power projects in countries like Vietnam and Indonesia but has significantly decreased its funding for the environmentally harmful practice since Xi committed to carbon neutrality by 2060.