Chinese government scientists have unveiled plans for a first-of-its-kind, experimental nuclear reactor that does not need water for cooling.
The prototype reactor is expected to be completed next month, with the first tests beginning as early as September. This will pave the way for the building of the first commercial reactor, slated for construction by 2030.
As this type of reactor doesn’t require water, it will be able to operate in desert regions. The location of the first commercial reactor will be in the desert city of Wuwei, and the Chinese government has plans to build more across the sparsely populated deserts and plains of western China, as well as up to 30 in countries involved in China’s “Belt and Road” initiative — a global investment program that will see China invest in the infrastructure of 70 countries.
Chinese government officials view nuclear energy exports to be a key part of the Belt and Road program.
“‘Going out’ with nuclear power has already become a state strategy, and nuclear exports will help optimize our export trade and free up domestic high-end manufacturing capacity,” Wang Shoujun, a standing committee member of the China People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) — a political advisory body which acts as a link between the Chinese government and business interests, said in a report on the CPPCC’s website.
“Small-scale reactors have significant advantages in terms of efficiency, flexibility and economy,” Yan Rui, a physics professor at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, and colleagues wrote in a paper about the project published July 15 in the journal Nuclear Techniques. “They can play a key role in the future transition to clean energy. It is expected that small-scale reactors will be widely deployed in the next few years.”
After the 2 megawatt prototype has undergone tests in September, China plans to build its first commercial thorium reactor. Measuring only 10 feet (3 meters) tall and 8 feet (2.5 m) wide, the researchers claim it will be capable of generating 100 megawatts of electricity, enough to provide power for 100,000 people.
The molten-salt reactor concept was first devised back in 1946 as part of a plan by the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force to create a nuclear-powered supersonic jet.
However, the experiment and the many others which followed — including an experimental reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee which operated for many years — ran into problems.
It is not yet clear how, sixty years later, Chinese researchers have solved these technical problems.