SHANGHAI – Thorium fuelled nuclear reactors will play a key role helping China secure energy independence and reduce carbon emissions, not only by generating electricity but also by providing clean heat for industrial processes.
China’s industrial applications for the reactors will include extracting hydrogen to combine with carbon dioxide and form methanol, an environmentally friendly transportation fuel, Jiang said (see our report last week on China’s “nuclear powered car”).
The country will also use the reactors to turn fossil fuels into other useful compounds by supporting processes such as coal gasification, coal-to-olefin, and coal-to-diesel.
Nuclear electricity would also help usher in electric vehicles, he noted. China’s few EVs today draw power largely from coal-fired stations.
While China will also deploy conventional nuclear, alternatives like thorium will contribute to the country’s push for energy independence. Today China imports more coal than it gets from its own mines. Jiang also cited a BP report that forecasts China will import 75 percent of its oil by 2030, and about 40 percent of its natural gas.
“That gives us an energy security issue,” said Jiang, whose father, Jiang Zemin, was president of the People’s Republic from 1993 to 2003. “We have a huge gap. We can rely on outside China, or we can develop ourselves.”
THEY’VE ONLY JUST BEGUN
Compounding the situation, Jiang noted that China’s export driven economy requires more energy than does an import economy.
And for all its famous growth, China and its 1.4 billion people are still urbanizing and industrializing – Jiang pointed out that only about 45-to-50 percent of China’s GDP comes from traditional industry.
“We need a high density energy – that is why we need nuclear energy,” he said.
China is also looking to nuclear to help clean up its pollution mess.
“We need to worry about the sky pollution, or air pollution,” Jiang added. The country has committed to getting 15 percent of its primary energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020.
Jiang is the chairman of CAS’ thorium molten salt reactor (TMSR) steering committee, overseeing development of a TMSR that uses liquid thorium fuel, at CAS’ Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP). Liquid TMSRs are intended to provide a safe, meltdown-proof, weapons-resistant alternative to conventional solid fuel uranium reactors.
They are cooled by liquid molten salt that allows them to operate at significantly higher temperatures, thus providing heat. Jiang is targeting 900 degrees C and possibly higher.
“Then we can use this energy to produce hydrogen. We can convert the CO2, which is not waste at all, but is raw material for our chemicals if we can collect them,” he said. “That’s what we call the hybrid energy system.”
COLLABORATING WITH THE DOE
Jiang’s team is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Energy on development of a high temperature, molten salt cooled reactor design. The U.S. built and then abandoned a liquid TMSR reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the 1960s and early 70s.
DOE has said that its collaboration with China focuses on molten salt coolants, rather than on molten salt fuel. China is advancing both, and has other thorium reactors under development in addition to the TMSR initiative, which is part of CAS’ Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics.
CAS and DOE entered their memorandum of understanding last December. After his public presentation today, Jiang told me that the collaboration is proceeding well. He was scheduled to meet later in the day in Shanghai with the president of the University of California Berkeley, one of threeU.S. universities participating in the DOE/CAS partnership – MIT and the University of Wisconsin are also participating.
In addition a SINAP delegate had just departed for meetings ORNL, he said.
The conference, co-sponsored by CAS/SINAP and the International Thorium Energy Organisation, runs through Thursday. Tomorrow, CAS/SINAP will provide an update on its TMSR development. We’ll be watching.
Photos by Mark Halper