Scientists in China have unveiled the design of the first-ever, waterless, molten salt reactor, which is perfect for providing power to densely populated areas. This also makes the experimental reactor safer, much smaller, and easier to construct than conventional ones.
China’s Thorium Molten Salt Reactor (TMSR) project has been around since 2011. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the project to fall behind schedule, we can expect a test run of the equipment as early as September this year.
A distinct feature is that this prototype only measures about 3 meters tall and 2.5 meters wide, but could produce 1,000MW electricity – enough to power a town of 100,000 inhabitants.
Thorium – Element Behind The First Molten Salt Reactor
Thorium – a silvery, radioactive element named after a Norse god – is much cheaper than uranium and plutonium. The prototype reactor is part of the country’s Belt and Road Initiative and efforts to be carbon-neutral by the year 2060. Currently, China makes up 27% of the world’s total carbon emissions, the largest among any country and more than the entire developed world combined.
The use of thorium, rather than plutonium and uranium, has many advantages. The fuel is less likely to be radioactive, solidifies immediately when exposed to air, and would contain any potential environmental damage. It’s also easy to export because it can’t easily be converted into nuclear weapons.
A Chernobyl-like scenario is also less likely to happen because, in an event of an accident, the molten salt would just fall into an underground bunker.
What’s Behind The Tech?
First, liquid thorium is released through the reactor. Then, as nuclear chain reaction commences, heat is generated and transferred through a steam generator. The thorium then returns to the reactor and the cycle repeats itself.
The technology can also be used to upgrade China’s fleet of warships such as subs and aircraft carriers.
Molten Salt – Looking Back
The idea of molten salts being used to power reactors has been around since the 40s. The U.S. even started an experimental program to develop a bomber using the technology.
Then in the 60s, the U.S. built a facility to test the technology’s power-generating capabilities, while other countries such as France, Japan, and the former Soviet Union followed suit.
The concept was so attractive because the molten salt also acts as the coolant, while its low radioactivity meant it’s less likely to be turned into a weapon of mass destruction (WMD).
Eventually, all of the projects failed because they could not stabilize the molten salt’s corrosive properties. However, technology nowadays has introduced new ideas to make this idea feasible again.
Molten Salt Technology For A Carbon-Neutral China
Another part of the appeal is that China has the largest thorium reserves of any other country. Sources say that it has enough reserves to power the country for at least 20,000 years.
In contrast, China has some of the lowest uranium reserves of any nuclear-capable country around, and even though new nuclear plants are scheduled to begin within the next few years, that might still not be enough to meet the country’s growing energy demands.