In the next few months, China will finish building a new nuclear reactor in a desert near the city of Wuwei.
Nuclear power plants aren’t new but the technology running China’s plant is: it runs on thorium, not uranium as the world’s other nuke plants do.
Actually, molten salt nuclear reactors using thorium as fuel aren’t news (“New age for new energy,” Trends Journal, 8 December 2014). 
Thorium as a safer, cheaper fuel for electricity generation was vetted by plants as far back as the 1950s.
It was an obvious choice.
Thorium is generously scattered around the globe, four times more plentiful than uranium.
It’s able to deliver as much as 300 times more energy for generating electricity than an equal volume of uranium while yielding less than 1 percent of uranium’s toxic waste.
In an electricity generating reactor, as much as 99 percent of the thorium can be consumed, compared to typically 2 percent or less of the uranium. 
Thorium also isn’t fissile, which means it won’t explode when a critical mass piles up: no meltdowns, no Chernobyl—or Fukushima-style world-impacting disasters.
But thorium technology was shelved 60 years ago in favor of uranium, which is fissile and could provide quick, cheap raw material for making nuclear bombs after generating plants had used it.
Now the technology has been rediscovered (“Nuclear Power on the Rise,” Trends Journal, 19 September, 2018). China launched its thorium R&D program in 2011 and is preparing to flip the switch on the world‘s first commercial-scale thorium-powered nuke plant.
In this design, the nuclear fuel—thorium—flows through the reactor in a slurry of molten salt, kept at normal atmospheric pressure. The salt acts as a coolant, eliminating the need for miles of plumbing and concrete cooling towers as tall as skyscrapers.
If there is a break or accident, a molten salt reactor won’t blow up or melt down; when exposed to air, the salt solidifies and locks the nuclear material in place instead of letting it soak into the ground or leak into a body of water.
When the thorium fuel is spent, most of its radioactivity abates in less than 100 years, although some will remain for 500 years—still 20 times better than the 10,000-year toxicity life of spent uranium fuel.
China’s new reactor will produce a modest 2 megawatts. Its chief purpose is to prove the technology and give engineers a model to use in testing solutions to remaining challenges, mainly the tendency of molten salt to corrode the pipes it travels through.
If Chinese officials view the Wuwei reactor as successful, the government plans to build a host of 10-megawatt plants around the country.
TRENDPOST: India and Norway are among the other countries leading research and development in switching to a nuclear power industry that runs on thorium. If the Wuwei reactor works, it will signal the beginning of the end for the mammoth, uranium-fired plants we’ve come to know and dread.
The Wuwei plant’s success also would establish China’s leadership in a crucial new field of technology.

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