In 2021, China stunned the global energy sector by announcing the completion of a thorium-fueled molten salt nuclear reactor. This alternative energy technology could become commercially available by 2030.
Thorium energy context
Thorium-fueled molten salt nuclear reactors use a mix of molten salt with thorium or uranium to produce energy. China opted for thorium because of the metal’s abundant supply in the country. Uranium reactors elsewhere in the world also need water for cooling purposes, adding geological constraints to their construction. On the other hand, the thorium reactor uses molten salt for both the transportation of heat and the cooling of the reactor, eliminating any need for construction near a body of water. However, thorium must be turned into Uranium 233 (U 233) through nuclear bombardment to initiate the reaction. U 233 is highly radioactive.
The technology used in thorium-fueled molten salt nuclear reactors is reportedly safer as liquid burning mitigates the risk of reactions becoming out of control and harming the reactor structures. Furthermore, thorium reactors are more environmentally friendly as burning thorium does not produce toxic plutonium, unlike uranium-fueled reactors. However, the salt can corrode the reactor’s structure at high temperatures. Corrosions due to salt damages can take five to 10 years to reveal themselves, so how these reactors may perform over time is yet to be entirely ascertained.
As China has large deposits of thorium within its borders; the successful development of the thorium-based reactors could therefore grant the country increased energy independence, especially from uranium exporting countries with whom it has strained diplomatic relations.
If thorium-based reactors are constructed and adopted widely, China could significantly reduce its carbon emissions by 2040 by shutting down fossil fuel-based energy sources (like coal-fired power plants) while meeting its energy needs. This energy innovation could also be exported to developing nations with much less concern of weaponization, as compared to the nuclear proliferation concerns that follow nuclear energy expansion. However, thorium reactors can theoretically pose a threat in the form of U 233, a by-product with potential applications in creating explosives and uranium-based weapons.
Implications of thorium energy
Wider implications of thorium energy’s future impact on energy markets may include:
- More countries investing in molten salt reactor development because of their potential to be safely constructed anywhere, along with their green energy output.
- Increased research into radioactive alternatives to uranium that can be used in nuclear reactors.
- More power plants being constructed in rural and arid regions, fueling economic growth in these areas.
- Future research into building thorium reactors inside public infrastructure and military assets, such as aircraft carriers.
- Western nations attempting to employ geopolitical tactics to restrain China’s exports of thorium reactor technology as it poses a potential competitive threat to their energy export initiatives.
- Thorium being inaccurately compared to nuclear energy on social media, leading to protests from local populations where thorium reactors are proposed for construction.
Questions to comment on
- Do you believe the greener aspects of thorium-generated energy can significantly benefit society versus its destructive potential through the increased generation of U 233?
- How might China’s lead in thorium energy production impact its strategic position in the 2030s?