China to develop a greener nuclear reactor

There's a nuclear technology that happens to be clean, safe and leaves behind less hazardous byproducts. Why aren't we all over it?

The promise of nuclear power as a clean energy alternative has long been debatable.

Proponents who would like to see more nuclear power plants argue that the technology generates considerably less carbon emissions than coal facilities. Some environmentalists have protested the idea, citing the lack of disposal facilities for radioactive waste and concerns over the potential for another Chernobyl-like disaster. But what rarely gets mentioned is a little known nuclear technology that happens to be clean, safe and leaves behind less hazardous byproducts.

Thorium, a naturally-occurring radioactive metal element, has been researched as an alternative to uranium as early as the 1960's right here in the U.S. at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The material alone can't be used to sustain the chain reaction process known as nuclear fission, but can absorb slow neutrons to transform into U-233, an artificial version of uranium that is fissile.

Thorium is an attractive option in that the material is more abundant than uranium and all of it can be used in a nuclear reactor without risk of a meltdown. It also doesn't churn out eye-brow raising materials like plutonium. And as an added bonus, thorium can be used in molten salt reactors, which is capable of consuming nuclear waste.

While the U.S. has done little thorium research since abandoning the idea a few decades ago, India has taken the lead in developing the technology. The South Asian country operates the world's first thorium-fueled reactor and has set a goal of meeting about a third of its electricity demand through thorium-based technology by 2050. And just last week, China announced a project to develop a thorium-fueled nuclear reactor, a major step toward transforming public's not-so-green perception of the rising industrial nation.

The reaction of U.S. nuclear supporters is best described as frustration over what they felt was a sort of American complacency for not jumping all over the technology.

Here are some telling comments from experts in a recent Wired article:

A Chinese thorium-based nuclear power supply is seen by many nuclear advocates and analysts as a threat to U.S. economic competitiveness. During a presentation at Oak Ridge on Jan. 31, Jim Kennedy, CEO of St. Louis–based Wings Enterprises (which is trying to win approval to start a mine for rare earths and thorium at Pea Ridge, Missouri) portrayed the Chinese thorium development as potentially crippling.

“If we miss the boat on this, how can we possibly compete in the world economy?” Kennedy asked. “What else do we have left to export?”

According to thorium advocates, the United States could find itself 20 years from now importing technology originally developed nearly four decades ago at one of America’s premier national R&D facilities. The alarmist version of China’s next-gen nuclear strategy come down to this: If you like foreign-oil dependency, you’re going to love foreign-nuclear dependency.

“When I heard this, I thought, ‘Oboy, now it’s happened,’” said Kirk Sorensen, chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering and creator of the Energy From Thorium blog. “Maybe this will get some people’s attention in Washington.”

Hopefully though, it's gotten your attention. Here is an infographic that breaks down the technology behind the thorium energy fuel cycle:

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