Wednesday 22 August 2012

The Chinese Thorium Programme

On 6th August 2012 Kun Chen, Professor and Deputy Director, Department of Nuclear Safety and Engineering, Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, spoke at the Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering about the Chinese programme to develop thorium reactors.

In January 2011 the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) launched a Strategic Priority Research Program named“Advanced Fission Energy Program” to confront two grand challenges in the nuclear energy world – long-term nuclear fuel supply and permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel. 

The program consists of two projects, the TMSR (Thorium Molten Salt Reactor) and an accelerator driven system (the ADS). The TMSR project is to utilize the thorium energy via the development of molten salt and molten salt-cooled reactor technologies, in order to secure the long-term nuclear fuel supply by diversifying the sources of the fuel. By around 2035, the TMSR project will build a 1000 MWe molten salt-cooled demonstration reactor and a 100 MWe molten salt demonstration reactor (liquid fuel), as well as possess the technologies that pave the road to commercialization of the thorium-fuelled nuclear energy systems. The Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics is leading the efforts to build a 2 MW molten salt research reactor in five years. A centre dedicated to TMSR research (TMSR Centre) has already been established.

China has 400 people working on thorium research projects
In the video below (at 09:00) Kun Chen states that with a budget of $70m p.a. there are currently a total of about 400 people working on liquid fuelled molten salt reactors and pebble bed thorium based reactors cooled by molten salt. One of their ambitious targets is to achieve criticality for a 2MW pebble bed thorium based reactor, cooled by molten salt, by the end of 2015. The pre-conceptual design has already been reviewed by a team from Berkeley and the technical design is due to be finished in 2013.

A Liquid Fuelled Reactor by 2017
The schedule for a 2MW liquid fuelled molten salt reactor allows two more years to achieve criticality in 2017, but in answer to the question "What are the biggest challenges to acheiving these targets?" Kun Chen said that the biggest concern is in the choice of materials for the vessel and the heat exchangers. 

In a review of the history of Chinese nuclear research (at 32:30) he also states that from 1970 to 1972 about 500 scientists and engineers worked on an MSR, which was the first Chinese attempt to develop a civilian nuclear power reactor.  At the time they used an aluminium containment vessel, which after a few months was not standing up to conditions. It was decided that they did not have the materials technology to pursue this option and started to develop the LWR instead.

This video was made and posted by Gordon McDowell  it starts with the questions and answers and then goes on to Kun Chen’s presentation.
US Dept of Energy Collaboration with Chinese on Thorium
Mark Halper in his detailed article on, dated 26th June 2012, reports that the US Department of Energy is collaborating with China on the Molten Salt Reactor project.

But as he states ”What’s not clear is what, exactly, the U.S. will get from the collaboration. While China has declared an interest in building thorium reactors - including CAS’ January 2011 approval of a TMSR project - the U.S. has not. The partnership with China suggests that the U.S. acknowledges a possible role for thorium in its energy future.”


  1. As a francophile you should know that France is another leader in thorium molten salt reactor R&D, at Grenoble. Both this work and the China work are covered in my new book, THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal, described at

  2. Thanks Robert,
    I was aware of the research at Grenoble and was going there for a visit earlier in the year but circumstances prevented me from doing so.
    I've ordered your book and will post a review in a month or so. From what I've seen on Amazon, unlike Richard Martin's book "Superfuel" you appear to be trying to take the general public along with you by starting simply and then covering all the topics related to energy generation: like energy storage,projected energy requirements and the variety of potential methods for energy production. That always requires a careful balance between too much simplification and too much technical detail.
    Full marks for using lots of diagrams.