News and commentary about ecodesign, geothermal heatstorage, PAH seasonal storage, urban farming, rainwater harvesting, grey water recycling, natural ventilation, passive summer cooling, energy autonomy, off grid solar comfort, as well as refined prototypes i am currently building.
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
U.S. partners with China on new nuclear | SmartPlanet
Among the claimed benefits: thorium waste cannot be easily shaped into a bomb; the waste lasts only hundreds of years rather than tens of thousands for uranium; thorium in liquid form burns more efficiently than solid uranium; liquid thorium reactors do not operate at dangerous high pressure; liquid thorium reactors cannot melt down.
The U.S. under President Richard Nixon chose uranium over thorium in part because uranium reactors provided the weapons grade waste that was desirable during the Cold War. That set the stage for a uranium-based nuclear industry. Today, solid uranium fuel powers almost all of the world’s 434 commercial reactors.
Co-chair Jiang Mianheng's father, Jiang Zemin, was president of the People's Republic of China from 1993 to 2003. Pictured above with President Bill Clinton in 1999.
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 reason for China’s interest in thorium: It has an ample supply of the substance, which occurs in monazite, a mineral that also contains rare earths, the metals that are vital across industries ranging from missiles to wind turbines to iPods. China, which dominates the world’s rare earth market, is believed to be sitting on substantial stockpiles of thorium that it has already extracted from the rare earths that it has mined and processed.
Those will include conventional uranium reactors as well as alternative designs such as thorium MSRs and fast neutron reactors. (Bill Gates’ TerraPower is developing a type of FNR known as a traveling wave reactor. Gates has also discussed a possible Chinese co-operation, with China National Nuclear Corp). FNRs are expected to play a big role in China by 2050.
China is 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.
Cecil Parks (top left) of DOE's Oak Ridge National Lab and Charles Forsberg of MIT join Xu Hongjie and Huang Weiguang in the molten coolant systems group.
It is now linking up with DOE in an effort to better understand the workings of the molten salt variety. The collaboration is also investigating “nuclear fuel resources” and “nuclear hybrid energy systems,” according to anorganization chart (see below) included in the CAS presentation. The DOE’s Stephen Kung and CAS’ Zhu Zhiyuan serve as “technical co-ordination co-chairs,” supporting their bosses Lyons and Jiang, who co-chair the “MOU Executive Committee.”
Scientists from ORNL, MIT, the University of California Berkeley, Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and several branches of CAS including the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP) and Shanghai Advanced Research Institute are on the MOU committee (again, see chart below). Two of the U.S. labs - ORNL and INL - are co-managed by Battelle Memorial Institute, the Columbus, Ohio non-profit science and technology group.
What’s not clear is what, exactly, the U.S. will get from the collaboration.
While China has declared an interest in building thorium reactors - including CAS’ January 2011 approval of a TMSR project - the U.S. has not. The partnership with China suggests that the U.S. acknowledges a possible role for thorium in its energy future.
But some skeptics worry that the U.S. is foolishly abetting Chinese efforts to advance a crucial energy technology that China could soon control, and thus give China hegemony in two vital areas: rare earths and energy. ORNL, the 1960s thorium molten salt pioneer, has no clear path to commercialization given the U.S. government’s lack of commitment to the technology.
Phil Britt (top left) from ORNL and John Arnold from UC Berkeley work with China's Dai Zhimin and Jiang Biao on nuclear fuel resources.
Many of those supporters urge the use of thorium reactors not only for generating electricity, but also for providing carbon-free heat to power industrial processes such as extracting oil from tar sands, or in the metals, chemicals or cement sectors, among others.
They also point out that the reactors could power water desalination, and that they have valuable byproducts that could be used as fertilizers and for medical applications.
China clearly sees many of those benefits as well.
The CAS presentation describes the possible use of thorium reactors as a heat source for various applications, including hydrogen and methanol production.
CAS also points out that molten salt, germane to liquid thorium reactors, can also serve as heat storage in solar thermal power plants in which parabolic mirror warm a fluid that eventually drives a turbine. By storing the fluid’s heat, molten salt technology can potentially answer one of the main criticisms of solar power: that it cannot generate electricity at night.
Like thorium nuclear, that would be a development that should equally interest either country. Let’s see if technology truly flows in both directions in this new partnership.