What happened to China’s groundbreaking molten salt nuclear reactor program?
Several years ago, during a radio interview, the host told me that the Chinese were planning to deploy a commercial modular molten salt reactor (MSR) by 2020. For context, these nuclear reactors are based on existing technology demonstrated by previous operational prototypes, can use fuel that is hundreds of times more abundant than the natural fissile isotope alone (uranium-235), withstands manufacture of bomb-grade materials and cannot undergo fusion. The modular design could allow them to be built in factories and shipped ready for installation to any suitable location.
The host was confident in his prediction as it came from one of the many books in circulation at the time telling us how great the future of humanity would be and that new technology would solve all of the major problems of the world. world, including hunger, climate change, environmental pollution and scarcity of resources. This would occur in part due to the abundant energy produced by SRMs even as human populations continued to grow.
Sticking to the narrow question of MSRs, I was of the opinion that the development of complex technologies is taking much longer than expected and that there are unique challenges in the utility industry. I assumed it would take 20 years for a viable commercial Chinese MSR to emerge.
While the Chinese recently started building a demonstration modular nuclear reactor, this reactor is of the light water type – the type that is already widely used, which is prone to the catastrophic mergers that haunt the nuclear industry, which uses uranium as its fuel, and which can promote the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The pressurized water reactor mentioned in the press release linked above is a type of light water reactor (LWR). The design is undoubtedly safer than previous REOs. But it still suffers from the many drawbacks of REOs and seems unlikely to be widely adopted.
Small modular reactors have been presented by the nuclear industry as the solution for rapid deployment of nuclear power generation capacity to combat climate change by reducing dependence on fossil fuels in power generation. But this latest entry from the Chinese seems unlikely to meet that need both because of its limitations and drawbacks, and because the world seems to be moving away from nuclear power. For example, Germany and Sweden are leading the way in decommissioning and dismantling nuclear power plants.
So what happened to the Chinese molten salt reactor that was supposed to revolutionize the nuclear industry and dramatically extend its reach? The World Nuclear Association reports that the Chinese are still working on it and plan to deploy it in the 2030s.
The radio interview mentioned above took place in 2015. We are, of course, already past 2020 when the Chinese MSR was predicted by the host of the show. In the interview, I explained that new energy technologies have to go through the prototype stage for proof of concept. All responses from the prototype stage are, “Does this particular setup actually work?” Then, if the money allows, a larger pilot plant is built to show that the design can be scaled up and run for long periods of time reliably.
With these two stages, we are already many years away, probably 10 years or more. Finally, if all goes well and the money is available, a large-scale demonstration plant that supplies electricity to the grid is built. From start to finish – site selection, design specifications, approvals, contracting, construction, fueling and finally start-up – this process can take years.
Once a demonstration plant is operational, its performance is subject to scrutiny. Can it continue to operate without excessive downtime? Is the overall cost of generating electricity competitive with alternatives over time, not just a week or a month, but years? How well does the plant work with the grid and the mixture of other sources of electricity? And, can an outside party, an interested utility, for example, verify the information provided by the owner of the demonstration plant?
There is also a key regulatory question: will this particular design and configuration be accepted by regulators in the utility country who plan to deploy them?
Assuming all of the above steps go well, we’ve just come to the point where utilities are thought on the deployment of such technology. Now these utilities have to decide whether to deploy it and then start the processes already detailed above for the demonstration plant. Even if this new type of reactor in its modular form is intended to replace existing forms of power generation, it could take another 20 years to make significant inroads into the utility market. Power plants can last 40 or 50 years. Not surprisingly, utilities are reluctant to replace plants they have already paid for if those plants are still making a profit, unless utilities are forced to do so by government regulations.
As I concluded in 2008, the nuclear-dominated energy future prophesied by governments and industry has never happened and probably never will. The advent of a Chinese modular nuclear reactor is unlikely to change that. And the fact that modular MSRs – a much safer option with potentially much greater fuel resources – remain only a distant hope is further proof that nuclear power will not be able to tackle climate change. within a relevant timeframe.
Techno-uptopists keep promising us technological solutions to our myriads of critical problems that either don’t appear, don’t solve the problem, create many new difficult problems, or continue to be delayed into the future (energy based on the merger comes to mind). What they never seriously ask us to do is to change the way we live. This must be a major reason why their “solutions” find such a large audience of ready believers.
Photo: Top-down view of the Moplten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE}. Oak Ridge National Laboratory (US Department of Energy) via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File: MSRE_Reactor.JPG