Mark Halper writing for SmartPlanet reports the U.S. Department of Energy is quietly collaborating with China on an alternative nuclear power design known as the molten salt reactor that should run on thorium for fuel.

According to a March presentation at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) on thorium molten salt reactors, Peter Lyons DOE’s assistant secretary for nuclear energy is co-chairing the partnership’s executive committee, along with Jiang Mianheng from the CAS.

CAS is a Chinese government group overseeing about 100 research institutes. The CAS and the DOE have established what CAS calls the “CAS and DOE Nuclear Energy Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding.”

The CAS presentation describes a China that’s keenly interested in thorium as a future CO2-free source of power in a country choking on the emissions of its coal fired power plants.

One prime reason for China’s interest in thorium is it has an ample supply of thorium, which occurs in monazite, a mineral that also contains rare earths, the metals that are vital for industrial production of most high tech products. China dominates the world’s rare earth market and is believed to be sitting on substantial stockpiles of thorium that it has already extracted from the rare earth mining and processing.

China is said to be developing at least two thorium reactors, and is looking at molten salt technology as well as at another approach that triggers a thorium reaction by using a particle accelerator – a technique pioneered by Nobel Prize winning physicist and former CERN director Carlo Rubbia.

The deal with the DOE is an effort to better understand the workings of the molten salt variety, which the U.S. has already build, run, and tested – over 40 years ago.  No industrial espionage needed – the information and technical advice seems to be part of the deal.

What isn’t known is what the U.S. gets from the deal.  So much for an open and accountable government – again.  Oddly, the U.S. could have chosen to commercialize thorium-fueled reactors and by now would be a massive leading exporter of reactors.

It looks like a one-way technical flow for now.  At least China can get going and offer the world a better reactor than uranium fueled light water designs.  When that happens weapons proliferation worries could be reduced.

Meanwhile in India, at about the same time, came the announcement India is planning to establish a nuclear power plant that uses thorium.  Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) chairman R K Sinha said, “It is natural for India to go for thorium reactors given the abundance in its supply in the country. We are in the process of selecting an appropriate site for establishing one.”  Sinha said the country already has the technological know-how to use thorium. However, for large-scale use of thorium, the country will need two decades adding, “We have to assess the thorium-powered reactor on various aspects in the long-term before replicating similar models in bigger ways.”

India may seem to be going much slower than the Chinese.  Since the international embargo after the 1974 Indian nuclear test, India has developed almost 100% indigenous technology for their nuclear program, making India self-reliant on nuclear energy.

India could very well choose to accelerate their effort, most of the U.S. materials are available either though a government deal or from private concerns looking for a partner.  They could catch up and surge ahead very quickly.

Both China and India are energy hungry and have capital to allocate. The U.S. has debt and intellectual property.  But there is little hope the current U.S. government realizes what a boon they offer.
There is also competition.  Russia has also run its early research and could offer their intellectual property, too.  However getting paid might be a very difficult proposition.

Two countries are heading into thorium-fueled reactors.  A third is playing along with its load of old knowhow and one can bet the competition will be on site soon as well.

This bodes well for thorium reactors getting underway.  It doesn’t bode well for America.  The U.S. investment is being lost to others for their economic benefit.  Still, over the coming decades thorium reactors could get very small, low cost and quite safe.

With the U.S. government deeply regulating and delaying every part of nuclear power it comes as no surprise that up and coming countries would seize the opportunity.  Thorium will get going, in a cheap mass produced way, operating much like what the U.S. ran over 40 years ago.

Since then a lot of intellectual property on liquid fluoride cooled thorium fueled reactors has been developed privately and will likely go on sale soon.  Too bad those high tech jobs, the new innovations and the sales, profits and taxes will all occur in other countries.

But that’s what happens when the leadership is political and regulatory instead of creative and entrepreneurial.


3 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on June 29, 2012 7:41 AM

    If $10 billion of the $821 Billion dollar Stimulus had been invested in building a production line for small LFTRs – we could be building them like jet liners. Then, we could sell the around the globe – making tons of money, reducing our carbon footprint and providing cheap reliable base load electricity.

    Proof once again the Washington never actually wants to solve any problems. They just want problems to persist and get worse – so their power increases!

  2. jp straley on June 29, 2012 8:34 AM

    Look at these optional wars we fight. One month of Afghanistan would have paid for the entire development of LFTR, ready to compete in the commercial arena — including as Musson says above — in the export arena.

    This is the opportunity cost of policies not based on the true national interests of the nation.

  3. Bryan on June 30, 2012 12:48 AM

    jp and matt, you guys really opened my eyes. Why haven’t other countries been working on those problems, though? Same problems?

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