| HONG KONG
HONG KONG Dec 20 Scientists in Shanghai are
attempting a breakthrough in nuclear energy: reactors powered by
thorium, an alternative to uranium.
The project is run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a
government body with close military ties that coordinates the
country's science-and-technology strategy. The academy has
designated thorium as a priority for China's top laboratories.
The program has a budget of $350 million. And it's being
spearheaded by the influential son of a former Chinese
But even as China bulks up its military muscle through means
ranging from espionage to heavy spending, it is pursuing this
aspect of its technology game plan with the blessing - and the
help - of the United States.
China has enlisted a storied partner for its thorium push:
Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The U.S. government institute
produced the plutonium used for the Manhattan Project and laid
important groundwork for the commercial and military use of
The Tennessee lab, as it happens, helped pioneer thorium
reactors. The Pentagon and the energy industry later sidelined
this technology in favor of uranium. The Chinese are now
enthusiastically tapping that know-how, in an example of how the
rising Asian superpower is scouring the world for all sorts of
technology needed to catch up to America in a broad array of
Thorium's chief allure is that it is a potentially far safer
fuel for civilian power plants than is uranium. But the element
also has possible military applications as an energy source in
naval vessels. A U.S. congressman unsuccessfully sought to push
the Pentagon to embrace the technology in 2009, and British
naval officers are recommending a design for a thorium-fueled
In a further twist, despite the mounting strategic rivalry
with China, there has been little or no protest in the United
States over Oak Ridge's nuclear-energy cooperation with China.
"The U.S. government seems to welcome Chinese scientists
into Department of Energy labs with open arms," says physicist
and thorium advocate Robert Hargraves. He and other experts note
that most of the U.S. intellectual property related to thorium
is already in the public domain. At a time when the U.S.
government is spending very little on advanced reactor research,
they believe China's experiments may yield a breakthrough that
provides an alternative to the massive consumption of fossil
The technology's immediate appeal for China, both Chinese
and American scientists say, is that thorium reactors have the
potential to be much more efficient, safer and cleaner than most
in service today.
The Chinese plan to cool their experimental reactors with
molten salts. This is sharply different from the pressurized
water-cooling systems used in most uranium-fueled nuclear
plants. The risks of explosions and meltdowns are lower,
"If a thorium, molten-salt reactor can be successfully
developed, it will remove all fears about nuclear energy," says
Fang Jinqing, a retired nuclear researcher at the China
Institute of Atomic Energy. "The technology works in theory, and
it may have the potential to reshape the nuclear power
landscape, but there are a lot of technical challenges."
Other advocates agree on thorium's peaceful promise.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch and Senate Majority Leader Harry
Reid, a Democrat, introduced legislation in 2010 calling on the
U.S. government to share its thorium expertise.
The unsuccessful bill said it was in U.S. "national security
and foreign policy interest" to provide other countries with
thorium fuel-cycle technology, because doing so would produce
less long-lasting waste and reduce the risk of nuclear
Oak Ridge has been free to proceed in spite of that bill's
TURNING BACK THE CLOCK
What China is attempting is to turn the nuclear clock back
to the mid-1960s, when Oak Ridge successfully operated a reactor
with fuel derived from thorium and cooled with molten salts. The
lab also produced detailed plans for a commercial-scale power
Despite considerable promise, the thorium test reactor was
shut down in 1969 after about five years of operation. Research
was effectively shelved when the Nixon Administration decided in
the 1970s that the U.S nuclear industry would concentrate on a
new generation of uranium-fueled, fast-breeder reactors. For a
range of technical and political reasons, not least the public's
fear of nuclear plants, these new uranium reactors have yet to
come into widespread commercial use.
The die was cast against thorium much earlier. In the early
1950s, an influential U.S. Navy officer, Hyman Rickover, decided
a water-cooled, uranium-fueled reactor would power the world's
first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus. Rickover was
instrumental in the 1957 commissioning of a similar reactor at
Shippingport, Pennsylvania - the world's first nuclear-power
Admiral Rickover was a towering figure in atomic energy and
became known as the father of the U.S nuclear navy. He had clear
reasons for his choice, engineers say. The pressurized water
reactor was the most advanced, compact and technically sound at
the time. More importantly, these reactors also supplied
plutonium as a byproduct - then in strong demand as fuel for
America's rapidly growing arsenal of nuclear warheads.
"The short answer is that uranium was good for bombs and
thorium wasn't," says Kirk Sorensen, president of Flibe Energy,
a privately held thorium-technology start-up based in
With the launch of the Nautilus in 1955, a course was set
that is still followed today, with most of the world's nuclear
power generated from this type of reactor.
Although it does not yield byproducts that can be readily
used to make weapons, thorium does have military applications.
The fuel could be used to power Chinese navy surface
warships, including a planned fleet of aircraft carriers.
China's nuclear submarine fleet has struggled with reactor
reliability and safety, according to naval commentators, and
thorium could eventually become an alternative.
Top British naval engineers last year proposed a design for
a thorium reactor to power warships. Compact thorium power
plants could also be used to supply reliable power to military
bases and expeditionary forces.
Thorium also has military potential for the United States,
experts say. But the world's most powerful military is reluctant
to pursue alternatives to its uranium-fueled reactors, because
it has operated them successfully for almost six decades.
Joe Sestak, a former U.S. congressman and retired two-star
admiral, failed in an effort to get the Pentagon to reconsider
thorium in 2009. "It is very hard to effect a change in
something that has been established for a long time," he says.
Sestak says he was unaware of the extent of cooperation between
the U.S. and China on thorium technology.
Flibe Energy's Sorensen, a former NASA engineer, has plans
to build thorium-fueled reactors for commercial use in the
United States. Sorensen has been instrumental in reviving global
interest in the groundbreaking work of the late American nuclear
physicist Alvin Weinberg.
It was Weinberg who led research into molten-salt cooled
reactors and thorium when he ran Oak Ridge from 1955 to 1973.
Weinberg was eventually fired for his persistent thorium
advocacy. But he had some powerful supporters. In his last
scientific paper, published shortly after his death in 2003,
nuclear-weapons pioneer Edward Teller called for the
construction and testing of a small, thorium-fueled reactor.
Oak Ridge remains the intellectual home of this technology.
The U.S. Department of Energy lab still has a small research
project under way on the use of molten-salt coolants for
uranium-fueled reactors. The Energy Department is also funding
related research at the University of California, Berkeley, the
University of Wisconsin and the Massachusetts Institute of
But the ambitious project under way in China could be the
best bet to unlock thorium's promise of safe, cheap and abundant
Jiang Mianheng, son of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin,
visited Oak Ridge in 2010 and brokered a cooperation agreement
with the lab. The deal gave the Chinese Academy of Sciences,
which has a staff of 50,000, the plans for a thorium reactor. In
January 2011, Jiang signed a protocol with the Department of
Energy outlining the terms of joint energy research with the
An electrical engineer trained at Drexel University in
Philadelphia, Jiang told a conference on thorium in Shanghai
last year China's thorium project "is 100 percent financed by
the central government."
The protocol stipulates that intellectual property arising
from the joint research will be shared with the global
scientific community. It excludes sharing commercially
confidential information and any other material that the parties
agree to withhold. The pact also specifically rules out any
military or weapons-related research. "All activities conducted
under this protocol shall be exclusively for peaceful purposes,"
Jess Gehin, a nuclear-reactor physicist at Oak Ridge, says
the pact allows the two sides to share information about their
"The Chinese are very aggressive, very determined and
programmed to move forward with this technology," Gehin said.
"Right now we agree that we should meet routinely, maybe a
couple of times a year."
Jiang did not respond to requests for comment. In a
statement posted on the Chinese Academy of Sciences website, he
said China and the United States "should boost mutual trust and
carry out complementary and mutually beneficial cooperation in
the study of thorium-based salt reactors, hybrid energy systems
and other cutting edge science and technology."
AN ENERGY HEDGE
Beijing's long-term goal: commercialize the technology by
2040, after building a series of increasingly bigger reactors.
The Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics is recruiting nuclear
physicists, engineers, project managers and support staff,
according to a regular stream of job advertisements it publishes
online. Its team is expected to expand to 750 by 2015 and
eventually include 1,000 researchers.
A director at the Shanghai Institute, Li Qingnuan, and other
senior researchers are wooing top young talent across China to
join the project. After lecturing on molten-salt reactor
technology at Sichuan University in April, Li invited students
from the audience to apply for positions at the institute,
according to a report on the university's website.
China's sprawling network of nuclear-research and industrial
companies are gearing up to assist. In early June, the China
National Nuclear Corporation, the body overseeing all Chinese
civilian and military nuclear programs, announced
that state-owned China North Nuclear Fuel Company had signed an
agreement with the Shanghai Institute to research and supply
thorium and molten salts for the experimental reactors.
The push into thorium is part of a broader national energy
strategy. The government wants to reduce its dependence on
coal-fired power plants, which account for about 80 percent of
the nation's electricity but have darkened its skies. Nuclear
energy is a big part of the plan: China aims to have 58
gigawatts of nuclear power on the grid by 2020, an almost
five-fold increase from 12.57 gigawatts today.
Thorium is a hedge on that nuclear bet. China has 15
conventional nuclear reactors online and 30 under construction.
But energy authorities are also investing in a range of
different technologies for the future, including advanced
pressurized water reactors, fast-breeder reactors and pebble-bed
reactors. China has little uranium but massive reserves of
thorium. So, the prospect of cheaper nuclear power with secure
supplies of fuel is a powerful attraction.
At last year's Shanghai thorium conference, Jiang described
how clean nuclear power would allow China to make a
"revolutionary" move towards a greener economy.
The bet on unconventional nukes, he said, explains "why
China is the first one to eat a crab" - citing an old Chinese
proverb about the individual who dares to make a discovery
important to civilization.
(Editing by Bill Tarrant)