China is soon (September 2-6, 2009) holding the first public workshop on the utilization of a non-proliferative thorium fuel cycle in civilian nuclear reactors since the late 1960s. Now as in the 1960s, Atomic Energy of Canada’s existing CANDU reactors are being tested, both by AECL and, apparently, by Chinese users of the CANDUs, to see how they would perform if retrofitted to use a thorium fuel cycle. Norway, Russia, and the USA are also looking at thorium fuel cycles and designs for reactors based on them. Some of these studies are continuations of ones that were first performed in the 1960s. The USA, for example, had several experimental thorium fuel cycle utilizing reactors then. China has a substantial amount of thorium produced annually as a byproduct of her global-class rare earth production in the Inner Mongolian Bayan Obo region. China currently imports uranium for her existing and planned new power reactors for civilian use. China would have no import reliance at all for thorium.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) today produces nearly all of the world’s supply of rare earth metals in the Bayan Obo region of Inner Mongolia.
Simultaneously, and as a natural consequence of this rare earth production, China produces an undisclosed but considerable amount of thorium. Thorium is a naturally-occuring radioactive metal, which is second, in natural materials, to uranium as a choice for fueling nucler reactors producing heat by controlled fission.
Because thorium reactors would not produce (breed) weapons grade plutonium, and, in fact, could use up plutonium by “burning it” to initiate the driving reaction in a thorium reactor, the militaries of all nations have in the past prevailed on their governments not to further the development of “thorium reactors,” so that by the mid 1970s the last experimental ones in use were shut down.
Today there is a need to end proliferation, and to destroy the plutonium from decommissioned weapons. The simple fact is that there is a lot of thorium around, perhaps multiples of the amount of accessible uranium, and there is a current revival of interest in the thorium fuel cycle as a basis for the production of electricity, without the production of greenhouse gases, and as a basis for shipborne nuclear propulsion systems for both civilian and military use.
China is well on the road to the Thorium Renaissance, and this September will host the first conference on that topic open to everyone.
The USA and India have most of the world’s accessible resources of thorium. The USA has in fact the only primary thorium deposit – one in which the principal output of which would be thorium – in the world.
I’m planning to be at the Chinese Thorium Conference; I’ll report to you on what I see and hear.