China and Thorium

Reuters is running a series titled Breakout: Inside China’s Military Buildout. Installment number 6 is titled The U.S. government lab behind Beijing’s nuclear power push. The title is misleading; it is not about China’s world-leading, multibillion-dollar program. That program includes 29 large commercial nuclear plants currently under construction. Instead, the article focuses on a $350 million research program to evaluate the use of thorium as an alternative nuclear fission fuel source.

The Reuters piece includes a number of statements about the comparison between thorium and uranium that are debatable, at best, but whose source should be obvious to anyone that has been involved in any discussions with thorium advocates. It neglects the fact that uranium and thorium produce approximately the same mix of radioactive fission products. Systems using thorium need to pay just as much attention to decay heat removal as systems using uranium.

The article partially blames Admiral Rickover for the nuclear industry’s initial focus on uranium, without ever mentioning that the single most impressive use of thorium in an operating reactor took place under Admiral Rickover’s direction.

The die was cast against thorium much earlier. In the early 1950s, an influential U.S. Navy officer, Hyman Rickover, decided a water-cooled, uranium-fueled reactor would power the world’s first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus. Rickover was instrumental in the 1957 commissioning of a similar reactor at Shippingport, Pennsylvania – the world’s first nuclear-power station.

Admiral Rickover was a towering figure in atomic energy and became known as the father of the U.S nuclear navy. He had clear reasons for his choice, engineers say. The pressurized water reactor was the most advanced, compact and technically sound at the time. More importantly, these reactors also supplied plutonium as a byproduct – then in strong demand as fuel for America’s rapidly growing arsenal of nuclear warheads.

There is not a single mention in the article that Rickover’s Shippingport nuclear power plant was the site of the successful test of the Light Water Breeder Reactor (LWBR) between 1977 and 1982. That demonstration plant — which was far larger than the non-electricity producing prototypes that Oak Ridge operated in the 1960s — supplied about 28,000 effective full power hours (average capacity factor of 65%). It used a carefully engineered nuclear reactor core with uranium-233 as the fissile material and thorium-232 as fertile material. After producing 2.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, detailed destructive post irradiation testing determined that the core contained about 2% more U-233 at the end of operation than it did at the beginning.

Admiral Rickover’s primary core designer, Alvin Radkowsky was so enthusiastic about using thorium to expand the amount of nuclear fission fuel available that he was one of the founders of a company that was initially born as Thorium Power, but is now known as Lightbridge. Dr. Radkowsky did not develop his interest in thorium because Admiral Rickover was so interested in uranium that he sabotaged efforts to develop thorium technology.

Bottom line: Reuters got it wrong. There is nothing especially worrisome or important from a military perspective that China is interested in learning more about thorium as an additional nuclear fission fuel source.

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