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An experimental nuclear reactor in China is making waves.

Fuelled with thorium, the China-based nuclear reactor is about to start tests. While this radioactive element has seen reactor trials before, many scientists and industry experts agree that this could make China the first country to come within leaping distance of developing the technology to a commercial scale, according to a report from the journal Nature.

If it works, this could serve as a major milestone in the global community toward creating safer, more efficient alternatives to conventional forms of nuclear power.

We need to start researching thorium now

The novel reactor is unconventional because it circulates molten salts in its interior, instead of water. It could produce nuclear energy at relatively affordable costs, without sacrificing safety. And, crucially, the thorium-fueled reactor could generate far smaller amounts of radioactive waste than traditional reactors, potentially taking a step toward gutting long-standing objections to nuclear power. Construction of the Wuwei-based experimental thorium reactor near the edge of the Gobi desert was projected for completion in August, with trial operations slated to start this month, according to Gansu province’s government, reports Nature.

Thorium itself is a weakly radioactive, silver-like metal that naturally occurs in rocks, and isn’t currently used in modern industry. It’s also a waste product of rare-Earth mining in China, which means it could serve as a viable alternative to uranium, an element that the country has to import at high costs. “Thorium is much more plentiful than uranium and so it would be a very useful technology to have in 50 or 100 years’ time,” when the global reserves of uranium start to ebb, explained Nuclear Engineer Lyndon Edwards of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization, based in Sydney, in the report. But, since it could be decades before the technology can be fully matured, there’s no time to waste, and we need to start development now, he added.

A depiction of a molten-salt nuclear reactor. Source: US Department of Energy / International Atomic Energy Agency

Thorium can’t undergo fission by itself

China began its molten-salt reactor project in 2011, investing roughly $500 million in the program, according to the former president Ritsuo Yoshioka of the International Thorium Molten-Salt Forum in Oiso, Japan, who worked extensively with researchers in China. The Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP) operates the Wuwei reactor, which was built to generate merely 2 megawatts of thermal energy. For reference, this amount could only power a maximum of 1,000 homes (hence why this is a test). But, should the experiment prove successful, China aims to construct another, 373-megawatt reactor by 2030. At this power level, a thorium nuclear reactor could power hundreds of thousands of homes.

Such highly efficient and climate-conscious reactors are among the “perfect technologies” capable of bringing China closer to its zero-carbon goal, set for 2050, according to Jiang Kejun, an energy modeler at Beijing’s Energy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission, according to the Nature report. Critically, while the naturally-occurring isotope thorium-232 can’t achieve fission, it can absorb neutrons from uranium-233 when irradiated, the latter of which can undergo fission, and generates heat. As of writing, thorium has seen tests as a potential nuclear fuel in other reactors in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It’s also already part of India’s nuclear program, although the cost of extracting it has proven ineffective compared to uranium there, especially since thorium must be converted to operate as a fissile material. But, if China’s thorium reactor proves effective, it could become a major milestone on the road to developing commercial-scale nuclear power based on the element.

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