Sunday, August 22, 2021

Whatever happened to China's revolutionary molten salt nuclear reactor program?

Several years ago during a radio interview, the host told me that the Chinese were planning on deploying a commercial modular molten salt reactor (MSR) by 2020. For context, these nuclear reactors are based on existing technology demonstrated by previous operating prototypes, can use fuel that is hundreds of times more abundant than the only naturally occurring fissile isotope (uranium-235), are resistant to making bomb-grade material, and cannot suffer meltdowns. Modular design could allow them to be built in factories and shipped ready to install to any suitable location.

The host was confident about his prediction because it had come from one of the many books circulating at the time telling us how great the human future would be and that new technology would solve all the world's major problems including hunger, climate change, environmental pollution and resource scarcity. This would happen in part due to abundant energy produced by MSRs even as human populations continued to grow.

Sticking to the narrow question of MSRs, I opined that development of complex technologies takes far longer than anticipated and that there are unique challenges in the utility industry. I guessed it would be 20 years before a viable commercial Chinese MSR would appear.

While the Chinese did recently begin construction of a demonstration modular nuclear reactor, this reactor is of the light-water variety—the kind that is already widely in use, that is subject to the catastrophic meltdowns that haunt the nuclear industry, that uses uranium as its fuel, and that can foster proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The pressurized water reactor mentioned in the news release linked above is a type of light-water reactor (LWR). The design is undoubtedly safer than previous LWRs. But it still suffers from the many drawbacks of LWRs and seems unlikely to be widely adopted.

Small, modular reactors have been touted by the nuclear industry as the solution for rapid deployment of nuclear electric generating capacity in order to address climate change by reducing fossil fuel dependency in electricity generation. But this latest entry by the Chinese seems unlikely to address that need both because of its limitations and drawbacks and the fact that the world seems to be moving away from nuclear power. For example, Germany and Sweden are leading the way in decommissioning and dismantling nuclear power plants.

So, what happened to the Chinese molten salt reactor that was supposed to revolutionize the nuclear industry and dramatically expand its reach? The World Nuclear Association reports that the Chinese are still working on it and expect to deploy it commercially some time in the 2030s.

The radio interview mentioned above took place in 2015. We are, of course, already past 2020 when the commercial version of the Chinese MSR was predicted to appear by the show's host. In the interview I explained that new energy technologies must go through the prototype stage for proof of concept. All the prototype stage answers is, "Does this particular configuration actually work?" Then, money permitting, a larger pilot plant is built to show that the design can be scaled and run for long periods with reliability.

With these two stages, we're already many years down the road, probably 10 or more years. Finally, if all goes well and money is available, a full-scale demonstration plant that provides electricity to the grid is built. From start to finish—siting, design specifications, approvals, contracting, construction, fueling and finally start-up—this process can take years.

Once a demonstration plant is up and running, its performance comes under scrutiny. Can it remain running without excessive downtime? Is the all-in cost of producing electricity competitive with the alternatives over time, not just a week or a month, but years? How well does the plant work with the grid and the mix of other sources of electricity? And, can an outside party, an interested utility, for example, verify the information provided by the owner of the demonstration plant?

There is a key regulatory question, too: Will this particular design and configuration pass muster with regulatory officials in the country of the utility thinking about deploying it?

Assuming all the above steps go well, we have only just arrived at the stage where utilities are thinking about deploying such technology. Now those utilities have to decide to deploy it and then begin the processes already detailed above for the demonstration plant. Even if this new type of reactor in its modular form is destined to displace existing forms of electricity generation, it could take another 20 years for it to make significant inroads in the utility market. Electricity generating plants can last for 40 or 50 years. Not surprisingly, utilities are loathe to replace plants they have already paid for if those plants are still generating profits—unless the utilities are forced to do so by government regulations.

As I concluded in 2008, the nuclear-dominated energy future prophesied by governments and industry never arrived and probably never would. The advent of a Chinese modular nuclear reactor is unlikely to change that. And, the fact that modular MSRs—a far safer option with potentially far greater fuel resources—remain only a distant hope is more proof that nuclear power is not going to be able to address climate change in any relevant time frame.

The techno-uptopians keep promising us technological solutions to our myriad critical problems that either don't appear, don't solve the problem, create many new difficult problems, or keep getting delayed far into the future (fusion-based energy comes to mind). What they never seriously ask us to do is change the way we live. That must be a major reason their "solutions" find such a large audience of ready believers.

UPDATE: Two readers have pointed to this prototype molten salt reactor about to go online in China. I'm not surprised. There are a number of prototypes around. But as I point out in my piece above, it takes a long time to go from a prototype to full commercialization. This story about that same prototype tells us that work on it began in 2011, reinforcing my point that these things take a long time to come to fruition--in this case, 10 years just to get the prototype built. Both articles see commercialization as occurring in the 2030s. For my cautions about even this timeline, see my comment below.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He can be contacted at


Don19 said...

At the turn of the century we here in the UK had a wonderful chance to go nuclear. With abundant oil at that time we had the energy to build them and go electric.

But an incredibly stupid Chancellor of the Exchequer didn't want the costs on the nation's balance sheet so decided to stick to oil and what was then - cheap gas.

John Abbe said...

I posted your article elsewhere and someone pointed out this reactor, likely to start test runs this year.


Dobbin Burkhart said...

Devolopement of a new technology is not a matter of time. The main input required is effort.

Steve Bull said...

Just beginning to reread William Catton's Overshoot and your post reminds me of a statement in Stewart Udall's foreward to the text that kind of sums up our plight (and mindset) well: "All the evidence suggests that we have consistently exaggerated the contributions of technological genius and underestimated the contributions of natural resources." (p. xv).

It would appear that science/technology's ability to help solve some of our problems over the past couple of centuries has led to a firm belief that they can do so regularly, as long as the funding and research time/effort is put into it (although it could be argued that these 'solutions' have actually contributed to/exacerbated our predicaments in many (most?) situations--it's all a matter of the time frame one views it from, I suppose).

I guess we keep 'believing' because we want to believe in human ingenuity and dominion over nature, and to fight off the cognitive dissonance-created stress that would arise should one of our more core beliefs be challenged.

Until we view technology/science from a different perspective (e.g., tools to aid us in stealing natural resources from future generations to sustain our unsustainable living standards), we are likely to keep believing in their power and 'magic' since thinking otherwise leads to great uncertainty about the future--and humans don't like uncertainty much, if at all.

Kurt Cobb said...

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. Let me address John Abbe's comment in detail. First, we must always be careful about information in Wikipedia. But if we take the entry on its face, this reactor is a prototype. So, it's coming out about 6 years after the prediction by my radio show host and, of course, it's not a commercial product.

It looks like my timeline will roughly hold if this prototype leads to a pilot plant and then a demonstration plant in China. The article states: "Scaled-up commercial reactors based on the LF1 are likely in the 2030s in central and western China..."

But, of course, that's just a prediction. We don't know whether this particular design will prove successful. And, we must keep in mind that nuclear power infrastructure assumes social and political stability with financial flows to government and industry similar to what we see now. And, it assumes the ability to protect nuclear plants from sabotage.

All of this may not be so in the decades ahead. When we consider the instability that the COVID virus has brought to the world, we should pause to wonder whether other destabilizing events await: A war between China and the United States? A second, perhaps more deadly pandemic? A devastating financial crash? The political disintegration of large countries such as China and the United States and the possible disintegration of the EU? (We say such things can't happen, but something similar happened to the Soviet Union. It was there one day and then gone the next and very few foresaw it.) An, of course, climate change is becoming wildly destructive and destabilizing and its affects will only get worse.

It's not just the technology that we must consider, but the society in which that technology is supposed to reside. Without the necessary stability, it will be hard to build and deploy a huge new fleet of nuclear power stations across the world. Such a trajectory almost certainly assumes a benign social and political landscape. Call me skeptical.