China set to activate first-of-its-kind commercial nuclear reactor: How is it different from traditional reactors?

The world's first clean commercial nuclear reactor is expected to be safer than traditional reactors, as the molten salt will cool and solidify quickly when exposed to the air, insulating the thorium.

Created On: Jul 26, 2021 13:45 IST
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China has unveiled plans to build the first-of-its-kind experimental nuclear reactor that will not require water for cooling and is expected to be safer than traditional reactors.  

The molten-salt nuclear reactor, which runs on liquid thorium rather than uranium, is expected to be safer because the molten salt cools and solidifies quickly when exposed to the air, insulating the thorium. Hence, any potential leak would spill much less radiation into the surrounding environment in comparison to leaks from traditional reactors. 

The prototype reactor is expected to be completed next month, with the first tests beginning in September. This will pave the way for the construction of the world's first commercial reactor. It is expected to be constructed by 2030.

World's first commercial nuclear reactor: Check Important Facts 

•The experimental nuclear reactor will not require water and so it will be able to operate in desert regions. 

•It will run on liquid thorium rather than uranium. 

•The first-of-its-kind commercial reactor will be located in the desert city of Wuwei.

•The Chinese government plans to build more of such nuclear reactors across the deserts and plains of western China. 

•Taklamakan desert, also called as the "The Sea of Death", is the second-largest shifting sand desert in the world. It could be a potential site for waterless reactors. 

•China also plans to build the reactors in the 30 countries involved in China's "Belt and Road" initiative. 

•China considers nuclear energy exports as a key part of its "Belt and Road" initiative, as it will help optimize its export trade and free up domestic high-end manufacturing capacity.

China to become carbon neutral by 2060?

The new reactor is a part of Chinese President Xi Jinping's vision to make China carbon-neutral by 2060, according to the team from the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics that developed the prototype nuclear reactor. 

Chinese Premier Xi Jinping has envisioned making China carbon-neutral by 2060.  The nation currently accounts for 27 percent of the total global carbon emissions, which is the largest amount from any individual country and more than the entire developed world combined, as per a 2019 report by the US-based Rhodium Group. 

How will the nuclear reactor be different from traditional reactors?

•The commercial nuclear reactor will run on liquid thorium rather than uranium. Thorium is a radioactive metal, which is much cheaper and more abundant than uranium and cannot be easily used to create nuclear weapons. 

•The molten-salt reactors work by dissolving thorium into liquid fluoride salt instead of using fuel rods before sending it into the reactor chamber at temperatures higher than 1,112 Fahrenheit (600 degrees Celsius).

•Hit up with high-energy neutrons, the thorium atoms will transform into uranium-233, which is an isotope of uranium that can then split, releasing energy and more neutrons through a process called nuclear fission. 

•This initiates a chain reaction that releases heat into the thorium-salt mixture, which then passes through a second chamber where excess energy is extracted and transformed into electricity. 

Advantages of Thorium

•Besides being safer, thorium is a much more abundant source of energy, as almost all mined thorium is thorium-232, the isotope used in nuclear reactions. In comparison, only 0.72 percent of mined uranium is uranium-235 which is used in traditional nuclear reactors.

•The waste products of uranium-235 nuclear reactions remain highly radioactive for up to 10,000 years and they also include plutonium-239, which plays a key role in the making of nuclear weapons.

•Hence, the traditional nuclear waste has to be kept in lead containers, isolated in secure facilities to ensure that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. 

•In comparison, the waste products of thorium nuclear reaction include uranium-233, which can be recycled in other reactions and  other byproducts that have an average “half-life” of 500 years. Half-life is the time that half of the substance’s radioactive atoms take to decay into a non-radioactive state. 

When will the nuclear reactor be ready?

The prototype will first undergo tests in September. After successful tests, China will look to build its first commercial thorium reactor. The experimental reactor will be capable of generating around 100 megawatts of electricity, which will be enough to provide power to around 100,000 people. 

It will though have to be paired with other equipment, like steam turbines, to make usable electricity. 

Background

The molten salt reactor concept was first devised in the United States in 1946 as part of a plan to create a nuclear-powered supersonic jet. 

However, the experiment and the many others that followed were hit by roadblocks, as the corrosion caused by the hot salt cracked pipes and the weak radioactivity of thorium made it difficult for fission reactions to build up to sustainable levels without adding uranium. 

Hence, all the investigations around thorium had stopped until 60 years later when Chinese researchers solved these technical problems.

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