“In 30 to 50 years, I can see a move away from light-water reactors to molten-salt reactors because they have a safer cycle,” says Tom Drolet, a Florida-based nuclear-energy expert and energy consultant, in an interview. “Thorium is also the most abundant nuclear resource on earth.”
The US, however, will find it difficult to transition to thorium because of its cold-war decision to invest in uranium fuels, which could be more easily enriched to make nuclear bombs. Even if there is a breakthrough in thorium technology, it would be too costly to retrofit America’s existing nuclear energy infrastructure. The supply chain is now fully stocked and includes everything from uranium suppliers to reactor designers.
Uranium supplies can feed the current reactor fleet, says David Martin, deputy director of research for the Weinberg Foundation in London, in an e-mail. But if nuclear energy should undergo a renaissance and the need for that fuel stock would increase as a result, it would only underscore the need for fourth generation molten salt nuclear reactors that use thorium.
“China's ambition is far-sighted,” he says. “This announcement should cause Western governments to end their de facto shutdown of nuclear R&D and massively increase investments in advanced reactors.”