Molten salt and thorium reactors are nuclear’s answer to solving our energy future (and silence critics)

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Nuclear energy is at the center of the debate originated by the need to outline a future in which we are capable of giving a firm response to our energy needs. minimizing the emission of greenhouse gases.

Some countries, such as Spain or Germany, have chosen to remove it from the equation by programming the gradual shutdown of all their nuclear power plants, but for others, such as the United States, China, India or France, nuclear energy is, and it seems that it will continue to be. in the long term, an essential piece of your energy system.

Renewable energies are the other major focus of attention in the challenge that lies ahead of us all. The medium and long-term strategy of the countries that have opted to turn off their nuclear power plants consists of solving most of their energy demand resorting to thembut this does not mean that the states that maintain their confidence in nuclear energy will not also rely on renewables.

In fact, the United States and China, which occupy the first and third position respectively in the ranking which lists the countries with the most nuclear reactors on the planet (among them only France holds its own), they defend an energy model in which renewables will be the protagonists and will be backed by nuclear energy.

Precisely, this gigantic Asian country (giant both in size and, above all, in terms of its volume of population) is stepping on the accelerator when it comes to developing nuclear power, and it probably won’t take many years to have more nuclear reactors than the United States. However, and this is what is really interesting, China is not just doing more of the same; is devoting many economic, technical and scientific resources to the development of fourth generation nuclear reactors.

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And it seems to be doing well. At least well enough to be about to start testing an experimental molten salt nuclear reactor that will use thorium as its main fuel, a chemical element that is more abundant on our planet than the uranium used as fuel in current nuclear power plants, and which, furthermore, according to experts, allows for the development of more secure installations. However, these are by no means the only interesting features of molten salt reactors such as the one below. about to launch china.

Molten salt and thorium reactors, the great asset of nuclear energy

During the conversation I had in April 2021 with Alfredo García, better known on Twitter for his alter ego @OperadorNuclearI did not miss the opportunity to ask this expert his opinion about the role that thorium aspires to play in nuclear energy in the medium and long term. Alfredo’s response, who currently works as an operations supervisor in the control room of the Ascó nuclear power plant, in Tarragona, was very revealing:


“What makes it attractive is that there is between three and four times more thorium than uranium on Earth. This does not mean that uranium is going to run out now. According to NEA, which is the Nuclear Energy Agency of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), we have reserves at the current price and sustaining current consumption for 135 years. We may have more reserves at higher prices, and also new reserves may be discovered elsewhere, so we won’t run out of uranium for decades to come.”

“Thorium is as easy to extract as uranium, but it has the drawback that not directly fissile. It is necessary to introduce it into a reactor that produces uranium from thorium, and what it produces is not uranium-235, it is uranium-233, but the important thing is that it is fissile. Once this uranium has been produced, it can be introduced into a conventional reactor like the ones we have in Spain, which could not work with thorium, but could work with a derivative of that element. India is working a lot with this resource because it is building new nuclear power plants, and also has huge reserves of thorium. China also has important thorium deposits,” says Alfredo.

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When this technician spoke these words, he knew very well what he was doing, and he did not mention China for nothing. The experimental molten salt nuclear reactor that this country is about to test, known by the technical name TMSR-LF1, is located in the Minqin industrial complex of Gansu province in northern China. It has a power of 2 megawatts thermal (MWt), and although it will not be the first active fourth-generation nuclear reactor, nor the first to use thorium as fuel, it will be the first molten salt reactor to use this chemical element.

If you want to know in some detail How does a Nuclear Center work I suggest you take a look at the report in which we explained it in great depth. In this article we are only going to investigate the characteristics for which molten salt reactors are interesting and represent an important asset for nuclear energy in the short and medium term. The most obvious advantage of the Chinese TMSR-LF1 reactor is that it uses thorium, and, as we have seen, it is a more abundant chemical element than uranium, which will presumably lower the cost of refueling.

molten salt reactors

This scheme describes the operation of a molten salt nuclear reactor, known as MSR (‘Molten Salt Reactor’) for its acronym in English.

In addition, experts say that molten salt nuclear reactors are safer than the reactors installed in nuclear power plants that are currently in operation. Two of the reasons are that they use lithium and beryllium fluoride salts at very low pressure as a coolant, and the fuel remains dissolved in the form of salt, so it is very unlikely that an accident could trigger a meltdown of the reactor core. Another quality of these reactors that is worth noting is that their architecture allows them to be installed underground, which, again, increases their safety.

Radioactive waste generated by thorium molten salt reactors has a much shorter half-life

But this is not all. Another unique and positive feature of these reactors is that they allow refueling while they are running. And, furthermore, the fact that they do not need water to keep the core cool makes it possible for them to be installed in regions where water is scarce, or, simply, in areas where there is no river and are not close to the sea either. This is one of the reasons why, precisely, China is investing in the development of this technology as a means to build fourth-generation nuclear power plants in the most remote and arid regions of the country.

More important advantages of these reactors. The radioactive waste they generate has a much shorter half-life than the waste from reactors that use uranium, which logically makes it easier to manage. And, furthermore, molten salt reactors use less fuel because the efficiency of thorium is much higher than that of uranium. Practically all the fuel is involved in nuclear fission, so its use, in theory, is maximum.

There are other technology-based reasons why China’s TMSR-LF1 reactor holds tremendous promise from both a safety and efficiency standpoint, but what we’ve reviewed in this article gives us a pretty good idea of ​​the possibilities. reasons why it is so important. Even so, he still has to show that everything the theory tells us manifests itself in practice. If it does, countries that still believe in nuclear power will have an option within their reach that promises us to be safer, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly.

Images: Nuclear Forum | US Department of Energy Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee

Nuclear energy is at the center of the debate originated by the need to outline a future in which we…

Nuclear energy is at the center of the debate originated by the need to outline a future in which we…

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