At Oak Ridge this week, Xu outlined a roadmap that shows that China is further along than any other advanced reactor R&D program in the world. China, which still gets nearly three-quarters of its electricity from burning coal, is racing to develop low-carbon energy sources, including both conventional nuclear plants and advanced systems such as molten-salt reactors. The largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, China aims to more than double its nuclear capacity by 2020, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Xu detailed a multi-stage plan to build demonstration reactors in the next five years and deploy them commercially beginning around 2030. The institute plans to build a 10-megawatt prototype reactor, using solid fuel, by 2020, along with a two-megawatt liquid-fuel machine that will demonstrate the thorium-uranium fuel cycle. (Thorium, which is not fissile, is converted inside a reactor into a fissile isotope of uranium that produces energy and sustains the nuclear reaction.)
In all, there are 700 nuclear engineers working on the molten-salt reactor at SINAP, Xu said, a number that dwarfs other advanced-reactor research programs around the world. The team has a preliminary design for a 10-megawatt thorium-based molten-salt reactor, and has mastered some of the technical challenges involved in building and running such reactors, such as the preparation of high-purity molten salts and the control of tritium, a dangerous isotope of hydrogen that can be used in the making of nuclear weapons. Limiting the production of tritium is a key research goal for the development of molten-salt reactors.