Chinese officials have approved the country’s first thorium-based nuclear reactor at the Hongshagang Industrial Cluster in Wuwei City.
The experimental reactor could open the door to a cheap and safe alternative to uranium-based nuclear energy in the future, according to those close to the project.
Located in the far reaches of China’s north-western Gobi Desert, the Thorium Molten Salt Reactor – Liquid Fuel 1 (TMSR-LF1) complex has been in development since 2018 and received its operating licence from China’s National Nuclear Security Agency in early June 2023.
Thorium is an element that exists at trace levels in soil, water and other organic material. While not as radioactive as materials like uranium-235, the naturally occurring fissile isotope, it is more abundant than uranium and is a by-product of rare-earth element processing.
Thorium, represented by the atomic number 90, has largely been overlooked as a potential fuel source because uranium-based reactors produce plutonium, a material valued in the nuclear weapons industry as it can be utilised no matter its stability.
Thorium is also not fissile but rather “fertile”, meaning it can’t be used as fuel unless paired with primary fissile materials, such as uranium-233, uranium-235 or plutonium-239, according to the World Nuclear Agency.
China’s TMSR-LF1 differs from traditional reactors as it circulates an internal coolant of liquid molten salts instead of water.
The liquid fuel design uses a mixture of thorium and enriched uranium-235 and can operate for a decade at temperatures averaging 650 degrees Celsius.
TMSR-LF1 will test several critical areas of concern, such as pyro-processing, refuelling, stability and methods to mitigate the build-up of gas, according to the reactor’s operators, the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP).
TMSR-LF1 is by no means going to make a significant dent in China’s energy needs. The test reactor can only generate an estimated two megawatts of energy – enough to power roughly 1 000 homes.
However, if researchers from SINAP show Beijing lawmakers thorium-based nuclear energy is a viable strategy, they could get clearance to construct a reactor with a capacity of 373 megawatts by 2030, according to a report by Interesting Engineering.
More environmentally-conscious reactors like TMSR-LF1 are “perfect technologies” in China’s push toward carbon neutrality by 2060, said Jiang Kejun, an energy analyst at Beijing’s Energy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission.
Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation researcher, Lyndon Edwards, called for further research and development into the field, saying that thorium could be a crucial alternate source of nuclear fuel, especially as uranium reserves deplete in the future.