Posted by Mark Halper

Imagine Bill Gates’ traveling wave reactor with thorium inside. Tsinghua University did.

SHANGHAI – It’s well known in thorium circles that China is enthusiastic about thorium’s prospects. The country is developing several different reactor types running on the fuel, including liquid molten salt, pebble bed and CANDU reactors.

You could now add “travelling wave reactor” to the list. Sort of.

For anyone who might have forgotten, the TWR is the fast reactor that Bill Gates’ nuclear company, TerraPower, is working on. It requires a starter kit of fissile material, and then runs for up to 60 years on depleted uranium, by converting the uranium to plutonium.

No one has a traveling wave reactor yet. But if you have a powerful enough computer, you can simulate how thorium would perform inside one.

That’s exactly what Beijng’s Tsinghua Univeristy has done.

“We tried to use thorium in a travelling wave reactor,” Tsinghua’s Dr. Yu Ganglin told the Thorium Energy Conference 2012 in Shanghai on Monday, from where we’re reporting this week and where thorium is shaping up as a contributor to national energy independence.

Yu presented a session called “Utilization of thorium fuel in different reactor designs.”

Thinking outside the box. Tsinghua University has a fancy computer that allows it to simulate thorium’s performance in unconventional reactors like the traveling wave, as shown by this slide at the Thorium     Energy Conference.

It’s not entirely clear what the results were.  Still, it’s noteworthy that thorium is getting attention in yet another reactor type.

TerraPower itself continues to rule out thorium.

“The first TWR and subsequent commercial reactors will be using depleted uranium,” a an independent spokeswoman for TerraPower  told me by email. “They have explored thorium in conceptual designs, but they decided there were too many issues to pursue engineering designs.”

Last December, the media was popping with reports that Gates and TerraPower were working on a deal to cooperate with China National Nuclear Corp. on TWR development.  But that has not materialized, nor has any formal development pact with a Chinese group.

“TerraPower attends a lot of technical conferences and shares their publications with colleagues around the world, including China,” the spokeswoman said. “There aren’t any business contracts at this time.” That may be the case in China, although elsewhere in Asia, India’s Reliance Industries late last year bought a minority interest in Gates’ company.

Yes, that’s the same India that has all those thorium reserves. For now, there seems to be no connection.

Images: Traveling wave reactor from TerraPower website. Slide from Dr. Yu Ganglin, Tsinghua University.

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