Chinese race to build nuclear plants, while westerners are shutting theirs

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Game-changing ‘secret weapon’ is a black substance named after Thor the Thunder God

* China has quietly become the world leader in energy production. It is embracing nuclear power at high speed, while Western nations and Japan back off

* New experimental reactor is switched on in Gobi Desert this month, running on a mysterious metallic substance named for Thor, the Norse God of Thunder

* Nations east and west are finding that getting rid of coal will take many years

* Twist is that climate scientists say nuclear power essential to avoid global warming catastrophe


CHINESE SCIENTISTS HAVE quietly made their country the world leader in energy production. China now produces 7.5 trillion kWh (kilowatt hours) of electricity a year, far ahead of the United States’ 4.4 trillion kWh. Yet the average Chinese person uses less than half the electricity of the average American or Australian.

“China will lead the world in nuclear energy, along with all other energy sources, sooner than you think,” analyst James Conca wrote recently in Forbes. China’s energy restructuring plans are likely to see it becoming a global front-runner in multiple forms of energy, including nuclear, wind, hydroelectricity, and renewables.

China appears to be behind in nuclear plants, until you realize that much of the west has slowed development or gone into reverse

Predictions of atomic energy leadership for China will surprise some observers, who note that nuclear power plants only provide between two and five per cent of the country’s electricity at the moment, far behind that of France and the United States.

Yet the real story hinges on little-noted developments: China is moving quickly on long-term expansion plans for nuclear power. Further, the country is developing a totally new type of experimental reactor, based on a metallic ore named after Thor, the God of Thunder. It is being tested in Gansu province this month and could be a game-changer, producing cheaper and safer energy: there are more details later in this report.

China’s expanding Taishan nuclear power plant is just one of many on the way

China now has 50 working nuclear reactors, putting it in third place on the global chart, after the United States and France. The Chinese leadership is enthusiastic about nuclear power, recognizing that it can, at its best, produce pollution-free, clean, green power. There are 17 more reactors under construction, plus a long-term plan for nuclear power to be China’s main source of electricity.

In contrast, many Western communities are openly hostile to nuclear power, with public fears likely heightened by reports and dramas about leaks at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The United States has 93 working nuclear reactors, but has closed dozens. There are only two new ones being built, and overall capacity is expected to fall, rather than rise.

Nuclear power is in decline in the US

And elsewhere? Japan’s nuclear reactions are largely offline, thanks to the Fukushima scare, and Germany plans to shut all its reactors by 2022. Belgium, Switzerland and Spain are following suit, and Sweden, once a darling of the nuclear industry, is seeing campaigns to do the same.

Looking at Europe and the United States, one might think that the industry is dying. Yet global warming may force a re-think.

‘Nuclear will make the difference between the world missing crucial climate targets or achieving them’

James Hansen, 2015

However, many scientists around the world, including climate change specialist James Hansen, have long been warning that more nations should be building them.

“Nuclear will make the difference between the world missing crucial climate targets or achieving them,” said Hansen and other top scientists in a 2015 call to action.

They calculated that the world should be building 115 reactors a year to achieve clean power by 2050.

Reactor control room, Tsinghua University

COLLABORATION

Fortunately for the Chinese, the energy science sector has so far NOT been bedevilled by the brutal anti-China politics that have scuppered numerous cross-border attempts at collaborative development in recent years. China is mainly building two types of domestic reactors, known as CAP1400 and CAP1000, with friendly input on technology design from America and France.

‘Scientists in China are about to turn on for the first time an experimental reactor that’s believed by some to be the Holy Grail of nuclear energy’

Will Jackson

And this is where the news gets exciting. Energy watchers have been fascinated by an announcement that came from Gansu province last week – announcing solid progress on a new type of reactor.

“Scientists in China are about to turn on for the first time an experimental reactor that’s believed by some to be the Holy Grail of nuclear energy — safer, cheaper and with less potential for weaponization,” said Will Jackson in a science report for ABC in Melbourne.

NAMED AFTER THOR

The Gansu project uses thorium instead of uranium. Thorium comes from a black metallic mineral, the first example of which was discovered by a churchman-scientist exploring the rocky coasts of Norway in 1829. It was named after Thor, the Norse God of Thunder.

“Thor’s Fight With the Giants” (1872) by Marten Eskil Winge

It’s much harder to make nuclear power from thorium than from uranium, so US scientists stopped using it in the 1970s.

Yet it is now recognized that a thorium-based molten salt nuclear reactor is likely to be significantly safer and cheaper. Thorium produces 1,000 times less waste than uranium, Chinese scientists point out. Unlike uranium, it can’t be used to make bombs with – so replacing the world’s uranium reactors with thorium ones would have other benefits.

Thorium’s benefits have been under-discussed in the West, and some say they have been actively hidden. Victor J. Stenger, a nuclear physicist, said he first learned of the existence of thorium as a nuclear power option as recently as 2012.

It came as a surprise to me to learn recently that such an alternative has been available to us since World War II, but not pursued because it lacked weapons applications.

Victor J. Stengler

The new Chinese thorium molten salt plant designs doesn’t use water for cooling, so can be built in the desert and provide power in sparsely populated regions like Xinjiang in the north west. The experimental plant due to be switched on this month is in Wuwei, at the edge of the Gobi Desert.  If the tests go well, the plan is to have working plants producing electricity by 2030.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong

Daya Bay plant in Guangdong

The first successful nuclear plant in China was Daya Bay, opened in 1994. Despite heavy negative campaigning by the US State Department’s Radio Free Asia and anti-China political groups in Hong Kong, the plant, part-owned by CLP, was successfully built, and has long been a major contributor to Hong Kong’s electricity supply. Some 70% of the electricity it produces goes to Hong Kong, providing a fifth of all electricity used in the city.

Phasing out coal

And what about coal? China, like the United States and Europe, has discovered that phasing out coal is harder than it seems. A Morgan Stanley report estimated that the United States would not be able to stop burning coal until 2033. China, given the fact that it is still a developing country, will take longer.

China is still building coal plants for itself and for its poorer neighbors, as scientists say that it would be wrong to suddenly cut electricity to poor, rural populations, and there are no viable alternatives yet. Wind and solar power are not yet at a level to power an electricity plant for a town or a city, and nuclear options will take time. Still, the world’s most populous country appears to be moving in the right direction. Coal provided 72.5% of domestic energy in China 15 years ago. By 2020 it had fallen to 56.8%.

The country’s leader Xi Jinping has said that China will continue to limit increases in coal consumption for the next five years, and then make actual reductions in the following five years.

Coal miner in Xingtai, China. Picture by Z Hart/ Wikimedia Commons

Political headache in UK

But in one part of the world at least, politics is starting to causing serious problems in nuclear power development. Britain’s latest plants have an enormous amount of Chinese input, in both financing and practical expertise. Unfortunately, thanks to the new “Cold War” launched by the United States against China, Britain is trying to get out of the agreements and cut out all Chinese involvement.

“Replacing their expertise won’t be easy,” said industry analyst Dan Yurman.

Is a U-turn coming?

What’s next? We know China will continue to build nuclear plants, and will likely use both the traditional uranium water-cooled models, and the new thorium molten salt model.

But will Western countries do a u-turn and go back to favoring nuclear power? China’s advances in this area will certainly make them consider it. The Thorium Energy Alliance estimated: “There is enough thorium in the United States alone to power the country at its current energy level for over 1,000 years.”

Furthermore, the global public’s increasingly loud call for leaders to do something about climate change may take the decision out of their hands.


Further reading

Should Western countries change their views on nuclear energy?

Nuclear power paves the way to solving climate change

China will soon lead in all forms of energy: James Conca


Picture at the top shows illuminated power plant, public domain via Pexels

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