A Promising Premiere for the Experimental Thorium Reactor

Scientists in China are about to turn on for the first time ever an experimental thorium-based molten salt reactor, with the first tests scheduled to begin as early as September. The new reactor, built at Wuwei on the edge of the Gobi Desert in northern China, is a small prototype designed to have an output of just 2 MW.

According to a paper published in the Chinese scientific journal Nuclear Techniques by the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, the longer-term plan is to develop a series of small molten salt reactors each producing 100 MW of energy, enough to supply about 100,000 people. While thorium has similar properties to uranium, it has the advantage of being a source that cannot be used for weaponization. (That is, by the way, one reason why the United States abandoned research on it in the 1940s in favor on uranium technologies better suited to the military plans.)

Another advantage of molten salt plants is that, different from traditional nuclear power plants, they do not use water for cooling, and so can be built in desert areas, such as China’s sparsely populated western regions. Provided the testing phase and continued development go well, the first commercial plants using the new technology are reportedly planned to come online in China by 2030.

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