China needs energy just about any way they can get it — coal, gas, solar, wind, biomass, nuclear — they’ll take it. However the country’s heavy reliance on coal is is becoming a heavy liability. Coal-fired power plants and other industrial outlets that ring China’s growing urban hubs are creating near-permanent smog centers that choke out the sun and leave residents and visitors alike engulfed in a debilitating hazy mess. China’s top-down government is addressing this issue ever more urgently, extending influence into pollution monitoring, new regulations and most of all, new power sources. Renewables and natural gas are at the top of the list, but nuclear is also a cornerstone of China’s energy future.
With only 20 nuclear plants currently operating, China already has 28 under construction, according to the World Nuclear Association — about 40 percent of the total global number being built. Last year China expected to add nearly 9 gigawatts to nuclear capability to its grid. Even with that additional amount, nuclear still provides less than two percent of the country’s electricity (with around 70 percent still coming from coal). However, in China, plans matter. And China has big plans for nuclear, hoping to generate almost 60 gigawatts of nuclear energy by 2020 and 150 gigawatts by 2050. By 2020, Hong Kong plans to get half of its power from mainland nuclear plants.
Nuclear power comes with well-known risks. Japan had similar nuclear ambitions before the Fukushima nuclear meltdown threw the country’s energy ambitions out of orbit. Aside from being highly radioactive, uranium, which fuels traditional nuclear power plants, is also expensive and in limited supply. China is currently an importer of the uranium it uses for its nuclear power plants.
China has big plans for this too, as authorities recently set a 10-year deadline to develop a totally different kind of nuclear power plant not dependent on uranium. In January, Jiang Mianheng, son of former leader Jiang Zemin, launched China’s push to develop thorium nuclear energy, which uses the radioactive element thorium instead of uranium as the primary element of production. The Chinese National Academy of Sciences has a start-up budget of $350 million, according to The Telegraph, with 140 scientists at the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear and Applied Physics already working on the project — and a plan to staff-up to 750 by next year.
The scientists had a 25-year timeline to build their first fully-functioning thorium reactor until this week when it got moved up 15 years.
“In the past the government was interested in nuclear power because of the energy shortage,” Professor Li Zhong, a leading scientist working on the project, told the South China Morning Post. “Now they are more interested because of smog:”
“The problem of coal has become clear. If the average energy consumption per person doubles, this country will be choked to death by polluted air. Nuclear power provides the only solution for massive coal replacement and thorium carries much hope.”
Research into thorium reactors is not new, and the U.S. actually developed an eight-megawatt prototype at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the late 1960s. However interest and funding waned in the ensuing 40 years as engineering challenges remained and uranium reactors took precedence. Plutonium associated with uranium reactors was also needed for nuclear weapons development. However, as the environmental costs — both to acquire uranium and over potential meltdowns — build and the ambition to develop fossil fuel alternatives heats up, programs in the U.S., the U.K., and Japan are also looking into thorium reactors. With a 10-year deadline, China has set the bar extremely high, as much of the technology remains unproven and major challenges are yet to be resolved.
“This is definitely a race,” Li said. “China faces fierce competition from overseas and to get there first will not be an easy task.” He added that the conditions they are working under are war-like. This is befitting, since earlier in March, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang declared a “war on pollution.”
With so much research going into thorium, some are hopeful that technical and engineering challenges can be overcome in a short timeframe. Scientists are pushing a similar timeframe in which address climate change before “abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes occur” — as bluntly stated by the the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week in a new report.
“There is a fair bit of research going on at the moment into the use of thorium,” Jonathan Cobb, of the World Nuclear Association told The Guardian. “And technology-wise, using thorium would not be too much of a leap. It is certainly something that is well under way in terms of research.”
Thorium is a plentiful chemical element, and while acquiring it is not the challenge, it would still create significant radioactive waste and still presents significant safety challenges for any large-scale plant. It would likely be harder to create nuclear weapons from thorium than traditional uranium enrichment processes, so it would be beneficial to efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. Then there’s also the issue of overcoming the power of the existing nuclear industry, which is deeply enmeshed in the global energy infrastructure and most likely resistant to any significant changes that could add costs or new safety or oversight concerns.
“I wouldn’t read a whole lot into it,” Tom Cochran, senior scientist in the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Nuclear Program and a member of the Energy Department’s Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee, told ThinkProgress. “China has been looking into everything when it comes to nuclear power. They have a broad civil nuclear R&D program and interest. It remains to be seen whether anything will come of this thorium effort.”
Cochran mentioned that some companies in the U.S. are looking into thorium reactors and that India has had a longstanding program to develop the technology, but he doesn’t think it’s going anywhere. And even if China did come up with a working thorium reactor in a decade, “so what? Meanwhile they will have dozens of traditional nuclear reactors using low-enriched uranium,” Cochran said.