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China bets on thorium

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Brand new nuclear programme within 20 years

China has committed itself to establishing an entirely new nuclear energy programme using thorium as a fuel, within 20 years. The LFTR (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor) is a 4G reactor that uses liquid salt as both fuel and coolant. China uses the more general term TMSR (Thorium Molten-Salt Reactor).

The thorium fuel cycles produce almost no plutonium, and fewer higher-isotope nasties, the long-lived minor actinides. Thorium is much more abundant than uranium, and the reduced plutonium output eases proliferation concerns. The energy output per tonne is also attractive, even though thorium isn’t itself a fissile material.

Thorium reactors are also safer, with the fuel contained in a low-pressure reactor vessel, which means smaller (sub-500MWe) reactors may be worth building. The first Molten-Salt Breeder prototype was built at Oak Ridge in 1950, with an operational reactor running from 1965 to 1969. Six heavy-water thorium reactors are planned in India, which has the world’s largest thorium deposits.

The design has also had its champions in Europe, but planning restrictions and a continent-wide policy obsession with conservation and renewables have seen little commercial action. But that might change.

A private company founded by Kazuo Furukawa, designer of the Fuju reactor, called International Thorium Energy & Molen-Salt Technology Inc (iThEMS [1]) aims to produce a small (10KW) reactor within five years. Furukawa is aiming for a retail price of 11 US cents per kWh (6.8p per kWh). Just to put that into perspective, the UK’s feed-in tariff ranges from 34.5p/kWh for a small wind turbine to 41.3p/kWh for a retro-fitted solar installation, making a personal LFTR much more attractive than an additional garage. Just tell them you’ve got an enormous solar panel.

There’s a good 15-minute introduction to LFTR, here. WARNING: contains technical terms and scientific concepts. Renewable energy supporters may wish to meditate before and after viewing.

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