America Is Letting China Steal Our Valuable Nuclear Innovations

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Microsoft and Apple grew rich by using Xerox's innovation.

Xerox's research arm (called Xerox Parc) invented the "graphical user interface" used by all modern computers. Bill Gates famously admitted to Steve Jobs that both Microsoft and Apple had ripped of Xerox's GUI.

Xerox could have made a fortune on its innovation. But it didn't realize what it had ... and failed to capitalize on its breakthroughs (Xerox tried to sue to protect its invention ... but years too late, and the lawsuit was thrown out because Xerox had missed the deadline for suing).

The same dynamic is playing out in the nuclear industry.

Specifically, the U.S. created a safer, more efficient form of nuclear energy running on thorium. But - like Xerox Parc - America isn't doing anything with its innovation, and China is running off with prize.

The Telegraph's Ambrose Evans-Pritchard notes:

If China’s dash for thorium power succeeds, it will vastly alter the global energy landscape ....

 

China’s Academy of Sciences said it had chosen a “thorium-based molten salt reactor system”. The liquid fuel idea was pioneered by US physicists at Oak Ridge National Lab in the 1960s, but the US has long since dropped the ball. Further evidence of Barack `Obama’s “Sputnik moment”, you could say.

 

Chinese scientists claim that hazardous waste will be a thousand times less than with uranium. The system is inherently less prone to disaster.

 

“The reactor has an amazing safety feature,” said Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA engineer at Teledyne Brown and a thorium expert.

Here is a short, must-watch TED talk by Sorensen:

The Telegraph continues:

Professor Robert Cywinksi from Huddersfield University said thorium must be bombarded with neutrons to drive the fission process. “There is no chain reaction. Fission dies the moment you switch off the photon beam. There are not enough neutrons for it continue of its own accord,” he said.

 

Dr Cywinski, who anchors a UK-wide thorium team, said the residual heat left behind in a crisis would be “orders of magnitude less” than in a uranium reactor.

 

The earth’s crust holds 80 years of uranium at expected usage rates, he said. Thorium is as common as lead. America has buried tons as a by-product of rare earth metals mining. Norway has so much that Oslo is planning a post-oil era where thorium might drive the country’s next great phase of wealth. Even Britain has seams in Wales and in the granite cliffs of Cornwall. Almost all the mineral is usable as fuel, compared to 0.7pc of uranium. There is enough to power civilization for thousands of years.

 

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US physicists in the late 1940s explored thorium fuel for power. It has a higher neutron yield than uranium, a better fission rating, longer fuel cycles, and does not require the extra cost of isotope separation.

 

The plans were shelved because thorium does not produce plutonium for bombs. As a happy bonus, it can burn up plutonium and toxic waste from old reactors, reducing radio-toxicity and acting as an eco-cleaner.

 

Dr Cywinski is developing an accelerator driven sub-critical reactor for thorium, a cutting-edge project worldwide .... The idea is to make pint-size 600MW reactors.

Popular Science reports:

It would be based on thorium, a radioactive element that is much more abundant, and much more safe, than traditional sources of nuclear power.

 

Some advocates believe small nuclear reactors powered by thorium could wean the world off coal and natural gas, and do it more safely than traditional nuclear. Thorium is not only abundant, but more efficient than uranium or coal — one ton of the silver metal can produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium, or 3.5 million tons of coal, as the Mail on Sunday calculates it.

 

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Thorium reactors would not melt down, in part because they require an external input to produce fission. Thorium atoms would release energy when bombarded by high-energy neutrons, such as the type supplied in a particle accelerator.

Wired points out:

“President Obama talked about a Sputnik-type call to action in his [State of the Union] address,” wrote Charles Hart, a a retired semiconductor researcher and frequent commenter on the Energy From Thorium discussion forum. “I think this qualifies.”

 

While nearly all current nuclear reactors run on uranium, the radioactive element thorium is recognized as a safer, cleaner and more abundant alternative fuel. Thorium is particularly well-suited for use in molten-salt reactors, or MSRs. Nuclear reactions take place inside a fluid core rather than solid fuel rods, and there’s no risk of meltdown.

 

In addition to their safety, MSRs can consume various nuclear-fuel types, including existing stocks of nuclear waste. Their byproducts are unsuitable for making weapons of any type. They can also operate as breeders, producing more fuel than they consume.

 

In the 1960s and 70s, the United States carried out extensive research on thorium and MSRs at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. That work was abandoned — partly, believe many, because uranium reactors generated bomb-grade plutonium as a byproduct. Today, with nuclear weapons less in demand and cheap oil’s twilight approaching, several countries — including India, France and Norway — are pursuing thorium-based nuclear-fuel cycles. (The grassroots movement to promote an American thorium power supply was covered in this December 2009 Wired magazine feature.)

 

China’s new program is the largest national thorium-MSR initiative to date. The People’s Republic had already announced plans to build dozens of new nuclear reactors over the next 20 years, increasing its nuclear power supply 20-fold and weaning itself off coal, of which it’s now one of the world’s largest consumers. Designing a thorium-based molten-salt reactor could place China at the forefront of the race to build environmentally safe, cost-effective and politically palatable reactors.

 

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A Chinese thorium-based nuclear power supply is seen by many nuclear advocates and analysts as a threat to U.S. economic competitiveness. During a presentation at Oak Ridge on Jan. 31, Jim Kennedy, CEO of St. Louis–based Wings Enterprises (which is trying to win approval to start a mine for rare earths and thorium at Pea Ridge, Missouri) portrayed the Chinese thorium development as potentially crippling.

 

If we miss the boat on this, how can we possibly compete in the world economy?” Kennedy asked. “What else do we have left to export?”

 

According to thorium advocates, the United States could find itself 20 years from now importing technology originally developed nearly four decades ago at one of America’s premier national R&D facilities. The alarmist version of China’s next-gen nuclear strategy come down to this: If you like foreign-oil dependency, you’re going to love foreign-nuclear dependency.

 

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While the international “Generation IV” nuclear R&D initiative includes a working group on thorium MSRs, China has made clear its intention to go it alone. The Chinese Academy of Sciences announcement explicitly states that the PRC plans to develop and control intellectual property around thorium for its own benefit.

“This will enable China to firmly grasp the lifeline of energy in its own hands,” stated the Wen Hui Bao report.

The U.S. is acting just like Xerox Parc, letting others steal its innovations ... and losing entire markets in the process.

If America fails to capitalize on its breakthrough, and let's China obtain all of the relevant thorium energy patents, we could lose the entire market.

Too bad the U.S. government - instead of developing the thorium concept which it innovated decades ago - is protecting an obsolete uranium model which was chosen only because produced plutonium for nuclear warheads and powered nuclear submarines.

Indeed, our government is doubling-down on archaic and unsafe technology: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved construction of new nuclear plants which do not incorporate the safety measures needed to prevent a Fukushima meltdown here ... and the same companies which built and operated Fukushima will build and run the U.S. plants as well.

Brilliant.