Asia Nibbles Away at French Thorium Lead

Despite Grenoble’s efforts to stay ahead in the thorium loop, Asia is leading the way in large-scale investment to make thorium the next generation of its nuclear power programme.

Indeed French scientists are warning that unless more government backing and industry support (read EDF, the French electricity giant) is forthcoming, China, India and Japan will overtake France as current leader in this field.

Experimental Breeder Reactor-II power plant model

Experimental Breeder Reactor-II power plant model (Credit: Argonne National Laboratory)


At the Laboratoire de Physique Subatomique et Cosmologie or Laboratory of Subatomic Physics and Cosmology in Grenoble, France where French thorium expertise is based, Elsa Merle-Lucotte one of France’s leading LFTR (Liquid fluoride thorium reactor) scientists recently told a reporter from European parliament TV:

“At the moment molten salt reactors are specific to France and Europe I think its important to retain this (molten salt reactor) leadership because China, India and Japan are increasing their expertise in this field.”

However EDF says its main priorities lie in fast-breeder solid fuel uranium reactors — a EUR 651.6 million sodium-cooled programme driven by the National Scientific Evaluation Committee (CNE) and known as Astrid (Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration).

John Preedy our thorium correspondent adds: “Actually it’s not true that work on LFTR’s is specific to Europe because there is a lot of support in the States, who of course developed and demonstrated the first molten salt reactor at Oak Ridge in the sixties. Unlike in France, at present there is no centrally funded government research but the Chinese are working with UC Berkeley who are acting as their external design checking authority and the US Dept of Energy has announced a co-operation deal with China. What this is supposed to deliver for the US is not clear! In contrast with the French date of 2040 the Chinese intend to have a demonstration LFTR running by 2017.”

Meanwhile global thorium enthusiasts are preparing to gather at  the Shanghai Hope Hotel in China for the IThEO Conference scheduled to run between October 29 and November 1, 2012. (ITheo is an independent privately-funded US-based body, which seeks to promote Thorium as an alternative to the uranium fuel cycle.)

This conference is most likely to confirm China’s lead in exploring fresh approaches to nuclear power generation. China produces large amounts of thorium  as a by-product of its rare earth mining operations and the ThEC12 conference is  partnered by the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP) – an institution answering to  the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS), which has specific responsibility for developing Thorium Energy in China.

Here our Thorium correspondent John Preedy looks at one of the barriers to be lifted if thorium is to take off in the West.

The Thorium Problem

Current legislation in the US classifies thorium as a dangerous radioactive material. This is in spite of the fact that it has a very long half life of 12.5 billion years and it is an alpha emitter, which means that the radiation is stopped by a few centimetres of air or by your skin. In metallic form you could carry it around in your pocket without risk. The result is that, because thorium is present in most rare earth ores, it has become more and more expensive to mine and separate rare earth elements in the US than in China, which now has a virtual monopoly on rare earth element production. Global Rare Earth Metal Oxide Production – 1950-2006 (‘000s Tonnes)

Rather than change the legislation dealing with thorium and address the root cause of the situation, the US government has announced that it is launching a WTO case against China.  China’s reaction has been to threaten to reduce rare earth output to match its domestic demand and stop exporting rare earth’s. Since these are used in a wide range of manufacturing industries the knock-on effect on the world’s manufacturers would be dramatic.   Rare earths are used to produce magnets used in hard disks and offshore wind farms, batteries for computers and mobile phones, catalysts for the oil industry and catalysts for car exhausts. In Gordon Mc Dowell’s video below, John Kutsch of the Thorium Energy Alliance and Jim Kennedy of ThREE Consulting take a comprehensive tour of the rare earth problem and follow it up by presenting a highly persuasive case for using liquid fuelled thorium reactors (LFTR’s) to generate electricity, or just high temperature thermal energy, to power communities or industries.

China is the world leader in research into the use of thorium and liquid fuelled thorium reactors and is currently employing 400 people working on thorium projects.  To paraphrase Jim Kennedy (at 12:34), “the head of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who is also the son of the former Chinese premier, has publicly announced that China intends to not just develop LFTR’s, but also to take out worldwide patents to protect the intellectual property generated by their research”. The US has little time left to make a serious commitment to develop Weinberg’s 1970’s Oak Ridge research before finding themselves having to pay royalties to China for something they have already successfully demonstrated forty years ago.

John Preedy who lives in France, where thorium enjoys a certain level of ongoing research support,  blogs at Living in the Lot

John Preedy

UPDATE: Interview with Kirk Sorensen (36m:02s)on

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8 Responses to Asia Nibbles Away at French Thorium Lead

  1. Lafayette October 2, 2012 at 7:27 am

    It would help to define an acronym before employing it.

    LFTR = Liquid fluoride thorium reactor

    An important point being that thorium is far more abundant than uranium.

  2. admin October 2, 2012 at 7:42 am

    Good morning Lafayette. Quite right and thank you, now corrected. On the issue of abundance please see our earlier reporting which I think covers it.

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