Saturday, July 24, 2021

Thorium: "China is gearing up to activate the world's first 'clean' commercial nuclear reactor"

This is a very big deal.

The promise of thorium has been a siren song for the last couple decades, back in 2008 I dropped this comment at the WSJ's Environmental Capital blog:  

8:37 am July 22, 2008 
Climateer wrote: 

C’mon guys, get with it!
Global warming is so last year.
Everybody, from Al Gore to the blogs you link to are reinventing themselves and talking energy.
Energy production
Energy cost.
Energy security.
It’s all about framing and re-framing.
Low impact man’s time has come and gone. The eco-soirée has moved on to erudite discussions of thorium between nibbles at the canapés.
By this winter the only references to carbon among the salon crowd might be Carbonic acid (H2CO3).
You watch. 

 Okay, so I was early.

From LiveScience, July 23:

Chinese government scientists have unveiled plans for a first-of-its-kind, experimental nuclear reactor that does not need water for cooling.

The molten-salt nuclear reactor, which runs on liquid thorium rather than uranium, is expected to be safer than traditional reactors because the molten salt cools and solidifies quickly when exposed to the air, insulating the thorium, so that any potential leak would spill much less radiation into the surrounding environment compared with leaks from traditional reactors. 

The prototype reactor is expected to be completed next month, with the first tests beginning as early as September. This will pave the way for the building of the first commercial reactor, slated for construction by 2030.

As this type of reactor doesn't require water, it will be able to operate in desert regions. The location of the first commercial reactor will be in the desert city of Wuwei, and the Chinese government has plans to build more across the sparsely populated deserts and plains of western China, as well as up to 30 in countries involved in China's "Belt and Road" initiative — a global investment program that will see China invest in the infrastructure of 70 countries.

Chinese government officials view nuclear energy exports to be a key part of the Belt and Road program.

"'Going out' with nuclear power has already become a state strategy, and nuclear exports will help optimize our export trade and free up domestic high-end manufacturing capacity," Wang Shoujun, a standing committee member of the China People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) — a political advisory body which acts as a link between the Chinese government and business interests, said in a report on the CPPCC's website.

Thorium — a silvery, radioactive metal named after the Norse god of thunder — is much cheaper and more abundant than uranium, and cannot easily be used to create nuclear weapons. The new reactor is a part of Chinese President Xi Jinping's drive to make China carbon-neutral by 2060, according to the team at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics that developed the prototype. China currently contributes 27% towards total global carbon emissions, the largest amount from any individual country and more than the entire developed world combined, according to a 2019 report by the US-based Rhodium Group. 

"Small-scale reactors have significant advantages in terms of efficiency, flexibility and economy," Yan Rui, a physics professor at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, and colleagues wrote in a paper about the project published July 15 in the journal Nuclear Techniques. "They can play a key role in the future transition to clean energy. It is expected that small-scale reactors will be widely deployed in the next few years."....


Not just big, potentially huge.

And India should have done it first.

Here's a poem about thorium by Roald Hoffman:

In the beach sands of Kerala,
abraded from the gneiss,
in the stream sands of North Carolina
one finds monazite, the solitary mineral.
In its crystalline beginning there was order,
there was a lattice. 
And the atoms - cerium, lanthanum, 
thorium, yttrium, phosphate - danced 
round their predestined sites, 
tethered by the massless springs of electrostatics 
and by their neighbors' bulk. 
They vibrated, and sang
 in quantized harmony. 
to absent listeners, to me. 
But the enemy is within. 
The radioactive thorium's 
nervous nuclei explode 
in the random thrum 
of a hammer of no Norse god. 
The invisible searchlights 
of hell, gamma rays, 
flash down the lattice. 
Alpha particles, crazed nuclear 
debris, are thrust on megavolt 
missions of chance destruction. 
The remnant atom, transmuted, recoils,
 freeing itself from its lattice point, 
cannonballs awry through 
a crowded dance floor. 
There are no exits to run to. 
In chain collisions of disruption 
neighbors are knocked from their sites. 
The crystal swells from once limpid 
long-range, short-range order 
to yellow-brown amorphousness. 
the metamict state

The author used to give readings at the Cornelia Street Cafe in New York City.

Sometimes, if badgered, he would talk about some of the tchotchkes he's gathered and some awards he’s collected::

* Nobel Prize
* Priestley Medal
* Arthur C. Cope Award in Organic Chemistry
* Inorganic Chemistry Award (American Chemical Society)
* Pimentel Award in Chemical Education
* Award in Pure Chemistry
* Monsanto Award
* National Medal of Science
* National Academy of Sciences
* American Academy of Arts and Sciences Fellow
* American Philosophical Society Fellow
* Foreign Member, Royal Society
A lot of people have been thinking about thorium for a while now.