China is using technology build the nuclear plant of the future

China is using technology abandoned by the United States to build the nuclear plant of the future

In February I flew into a machine that could represent the future of nuclear energy. He was on a virtual reality tour at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics in China, which plans in the coming years to build an experimental reactor whose design makes fusion much less likely. Inside the nucleus, a superheated and intensely radioactive place where no human will ever go, the layers of the power plant took off before me: the outer stainless steel vessel, the internal capacity of a high-tech alloy and finally the nuclear fuel itself, Tens of miles of spheres the size of a billiard ball that contains particles of radioactive material.

Nuclear palant of the future
Given the unprecedented access to the internal operation of China's advanced nuclear R&D program, I witnessed the birth of a new nuclear technology. Through the virtual reactor, a complex system of pipes that carries the fluid that makes this system special is being registered: a molten salt that cools the reactor and transports heat to drive a turbine and generate electricity. At least in theory, this type of reactor cannot suffer the kind of catastrophic failure it suffered in Chernobyl and Fukushima, which makes costly and redundant safety systems that have raised the cost of physical reactors unnecessary. In addition, the new plants have little waste and can even consume the affected nuclear waste. They could run on uranium, which feeds 99 percent of the world's nuclear power plants, or they can run on thorium, which is cleaner and more abundant. The ultimate goal of the Shanghai Institute: to build a bottom salt reactor that can replace the technology of the 1970s in today's nuclear power plants and help eliminate China from coal that soils the air in Shanghai and Beijing, marking the Beginning of an era of low cost. , abundant energy without carbon.

In the next two decades, China hopes to build the world's largest nuclear power industry. The aircraft includes up to 30 new specific nuclear power plants (in addition to the 34 reactors operating today), as well as a variety of next-generation reactors, including molten sales reactors of thorium, gas-cooled high temperature reactors (which, as smelting - salt reactors, are highly efficient and inherently safe), and fast reactors cooled by sodium (which can consume spent fuel from electronic reactors to produce electricity). Chinese planners want not only to dramatically expand the country's internal nuclear capacity, but also to become the world's leading provider of nuclear reactors and components, a perspective that many Western observers find alarming.


The Shanghai Institute's effort to develop molten sales reactors, a technology that has been completely forgotten in the United States over the decades, reflects how bold China's Chinese ambitions are. The government has already invested about two million Chinese renminbi ($ 300 million) in the last five years in research and development of foundry sales. The construction of real plants will require tens of millions of millions more. As with other innovative nuclear technologies in development around the world, there are few guarantees: although people have used small experimental molten sales reactors, no one has actually built a scale of public services and connected it to the network. However, the Chinese government expects to have a commercial-sized plant in operation within 15 years, which it needs to revive the besieged nuclear power industry.

The first experiments with molten sales reactors were experienced at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, under its director Alvin Weinberg and fines from the 1950s. Today's Chinese program, in fact, is the result of a unique partnership and somewhat controversial between Oak Ridge and the Shanghai Institute. The US research program UU. It continues for more than a decade, but it finally closed in favor of the technology used in the vast majority of current nuclear power plants. In retrospect, that decision contributed not only to the disappearance of promising nuclear technology, but also to the long stagnation of the industry.

Today, however, the world needs nuclear energy more than ever if we want to restrict climate change. According to the International Energy Agency, the world's nuclear capacity needs more than double by mid-century if we want to stay within 2 ° C of warming. As it is now, that seems unlikely. Several countries, including China and India, embarked on the massive construction of nuclear energy, but most involved large specific reactors, technology that is too expensive for much of the rest of the world. Also countries, such as Germany, that can allow nuclear energy are gradually eliminating because they fear another disaster. That makes nuclear power plants a proof of failures that are specifically found in the Shanghai Institute are of utmost urgency.

The world needs nuclear energy more than ever if we want to limit climate change.

After my virtual tour, Kun Chen, one of the leading scientists of the molten salt program, accompanied me back to the main administrative building of the institute. The snow had fallen during the night and it was very cold. In the auditorium, a small crowd of employees had gathered for a talk from Xu Hongjie, the director of the molten salt program. It was the week before the long holidays of the lunar new year, and the institute's annual banquet was held that night. Xu saw for more than two hours about the history of molten sales technology and its prospects for the future.

"This has been China's dream for half a century," he said. “Previously, we take care of the knowledge and skills necessary to make it happen. Now we have the resources, the technology and the experience. Now we can do it. "

Chain reactions


Alvin Weinberg first arrived at Oak Ridge in 1945, just after his laboratories were built in the hills of northern Tennessee to manufacture quality uranium and plutonium for weapons. Weinberg, a veteran of the Manhattan Project, became director of the fast-growing national laboratory in 1955 and held the position until 1973. He was a pioneering nuclear physicist and a nuclear power philosopher who used the phrase "Faustian bargain" to describe the tension between The thirst of the industrialized society for abundant energy and the extreme vigilance necessary to keep nuclear energy safe. To make this source of energy clean and extremely cheap, he believed, the link between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons would have to be cut. And the way to break that link was the molten salt reactor of thorium.

Under Weinberg's leadership, a team of young chemical enthusiasts, physicists and engineers operated a small experimental molten salt reactor from 1965 to 1969. That reactor at Oak Ridge operated with uranium; Weinberg's ultimate goal was to build one that would work exclusively with thorium, which, unlike uranium, cannot easily become a bomb. But the molten salt experiment was abandoned in the early 1970s. One great reason was that Weinberg managed to alienate his superiors by warning about the dangers of conventional nuclear energy at a time when dozens of those reactors were already under construction. or in the planning stages.

By the end of the century, the United States had built 104 nuclear reactors, but the construction of new ones had stopped completely, and the technology remained stagnant in the 1970s. Because conventional reactors require huge and expensive containment vessels They can explode under extreme conditions, and because they use extensive external cooling systems to ensure that the solid fuel core does not overheat and cause a runaway reaction that leads to a fusion, they are enormously expensive. Two new reactors that are now being built in Georgia could cost $ 21 billion, 50 percent above the original estimate of $ 14 billion. All that for the technology of 40 years.

Today, however, as climate change accelerates and government officials and scientists seek nuclear technology without the costly problems that have paralyzed the conventional version, molten salt is experiencing a rebirth. Companies such as Terrestrial Energy, Transatomic Energy, Moltex and Flibe Energy are competing to develop new molten salt reactors. Research programs on various forms of technology are being carried out in universities and institutes in Japan, France, Russia and the United States, in addition to the Shanghai Institute. In addition to the work of developing solid fuel reactors that are cooled with molten salt (like the one I traveled virtually in Shanghai), there are even more radical designs that also use radioactive materials dissolved in molten salt as fuel (as the Weinberg experiment did

Like all nuclear plants, molten salt reactors excite atoms in a radioactive material to create a controlled chain reaction. The reaction releases heat that boils water, creating steam that drives a turbine to generate electricity. Molten salt cooled solid fuel reactors can operate at higher temperatures than conventional reactors, which makes them more efficient and operate at atmospheric pressures, which means that they do not require expensive vessels of the type that broke in Chernobyl. Molten salt reactors that use liquid fuel have an even more attractive advantage: when the temperature in the core reaches a certain threshold, the liquid expands, which slows down nuclear reactions and allows the core to cool. To take advantage of this property, the reactor is built like a bathtub, with a drain plug at the bottom; If the temperature in the core is too high, the plug melts and the fuel is emptied into an armored tank, usually underground, where it is stored safely as it cools. These reactors should be able to take more advantage of the energy available in radioactive material than conventional ones. That means they should drastically reduce the amount of nuclear waste that must be handled and stored.

Because they do not require large containment structures and need less fuel to produce the same amount of electricity, these reactors are more compact than current nuclear plants. They could be mass produced, in factories, and combined together to form larger power plants.

All that should make them cheaper to build. Unlike wind and solar energy, which have become much less expensive over time, nuclear plants have become much more expensive. According to the US Energy Information Administration. In the US, the inflation-adjusted cost of building a nuclear plant increased from $ 1,500 per kilowatt capacity in the early 1960s to more than $ 4,000 per kilowatt in the mid-1970s. In its latest calculation, in 2013 , the EIA discovered that the figure had increased to more than $ 5,500, more expensive than a solar power plant or a wind farm on land, and much more than a natural gas plant. That initial cost is amplified by the large size of the reactors; At the average quoted by the EIA, a one-gigawatt plant would cost $ 5.5 billion, a risky investment for any company.

These initial costs are balanced by the fact that nuclear plants are relatively cheap to operate: in new plants, the levelized cost of electricity, which measures the cost of the energy generated during the life of the plant, is $ 95 per megawatt hour, according to the EIA, comparable to the cost of coal plant electricity and less than solar energy ($ 125 per megawatt hour). Still, natural gas plants are much cheaper to build, and the cost of the electricity they produce ($ 75 per megawatt hour, according to the EIA) is also lower. The tightening of carbon emission regulations makes nuclear energy more attractive, but reducing the cost of construction is critical to the future of carbon-free nuclear energy.

That is the argument of a new generation of startups working in advanced nuclear reactors, several of them financed by Silicon Valley investors. Transatomic Power, for example, was founded by a couple of MIT doctorates, Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, who have designed a 520 megawatt plant (approximately the size of an average coal plant today) that they believe can be built for $ 2 billion, or $ 3,846 per kilowatt capacity. That is in line with the cost of building a solar power plant, but it would have the great advantage of being able to continuously produce energy, not only when the sun shines. Terrestrial Energy, which recently won a Canadian government research grant to build a prototype reactor, says its molten salt reactor could be built for just $ 2,000 per kilowatt.

But despite the fact that molten salt designs have energized young innovative technologists, obtain a new nuclear power technology licensed and built in the USA. UU. It remains a daunting prospect. Simply applying for a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, so some of these startups can never take off. What's more, even $ 2 billion would be a huge amount of money for investors and utilities to spend on unproven technology with questionable financial advantages. That is why the program closest to the production of a functioning reactor is in the People's Republic of China.

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