SPECIAL REPORT-The U.S. government lab behind China’s nuclear power push Dec 20, 2013 Dec 20 (Reuters) – Scientists in Shanghai are attempting a breakthrough in nuclear energy: reactors powered by thorium, an alternative to uranium.
The project is run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a government body with close military ties that coordinates the country’s science-and-technology strategy. The academy has designated thorium as a priority for China’s top laboratories. The program has a budget of $350 million. And it’s being spearheaded by the influential son of a former Chinese president.
But even as China bulks up its military muscle through means ranging from espionage to heavy spending, it is pursuing this aspect of its technology game plan with the blessing – and the help – of the United States.
China has enlisted a storied partner for its thorium push: Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The U.S. government institute produced the plutonium used for the Manhattan Project and laid important groundwork for the commercial and military use of nuclear power.
The Tennessee lab, as it happens, helped pioneer thorium reactors. ……..
Thorium’s chief allure is that it is a potentially far safer fuel for civilian power plants than is uranium. But the element also has possible military applications as an energy source in naval vessels. A U.S. congressman unsuccessfully sought to push the Pentagon to embrace the technology in 2009, and British naval officers are recommending a design for a thorium-fueled ship.
In a further twist, despite the mounting strategic rivalry with China, there has been little or no protest in the United States over Oak Ridge’s nuclear-energy cooperation with China……..
Although it does not yield byproducts that can be readily used to make weapons, thorium does have military applications.
The fuel could be used to power Chinese navy surface warships, including a planned fleet of aircraft carriers. China’s nuclear submarine fleet has struggled with reactor reliability and safety, according to naval commentators, and thorium could eventually become an alternative.
Top British naval engineers last year proposed a design for a thorium reactor to power warships. Compact thorium power plants could also be used to supply reliable power to military bases and expeditionary forces.
Thorium also has military potential for the United States, experts say………
An electrical engineer trained at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Jiang told a conference on thorium in Shanghai last year China’s thorium project “is 100 percent financed by the central government.”…..