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China’s nuclear power innovation alerts the West

Nuclear Fission Reaction

China’s nuclear power innovation alerts the West. A Chinese nuclear-power breakthrough has raised eyebrows in the West. The latest development has the potential to recycle spent nuclear fuel, aiding China’s efforts to not depend on fossil fuels. The exercise is cost-effective and renders the spent fuel much less dangerous.

The Institute of Modern Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences recently built a prototype “particle beam cannon” that can recycle dangerous waste produced by a nuclear reactor. The West wonders whether China will stake its claim to global leadership in climate-friendly technology if the breakthrough works.

In a note, the Institute described details of the new apparatus. “The accelerator-driven nuclear energy system (ADS) can efficiently solve the nuclear fuel recycling and nuclear waste safe disposal problems faced by the safe, clean and sustainable development of nuclear power, and provide an effective solution for the realization of the ‘dual carbon’ goal.”

China’s nuclear power innovation alerts the West: The Taishan power plant that had an alleged radiation leak in 2021

According to the scientists at the Institute, “the first key device to realize the system is the “particle beam cannon” – a high-current high-power accelerator”. 

Giving the background of the innovation, the Institute said: “After ten years of scientific and technological research, it has successfully developed an ADS superconducting linear accelerator prototype (design energy 20 MeV), and has achieved 10 mA continuous wave proton beam acceleration for the first time in the world. kW, 100 hours of stable operation, the highest beam power reaches 205 kW, and the availability is better than 93%. This work increases the intensity of continuous beam current by nearly 5 times compared with the original best index in the world, establishing my country’s leading advantage in this field, and also marking that Chinese scientists have promoted the international high-current proton superconducting linear accelerator to substantially enter 10 mA– the era of continuous wave stable operation.” 

This is the first time since the concept of an accelerator-driven system ADS was proposed in the 1980s that the flow intensity of the “particle beam cannon” has reached the industrialized application index, which will promote the concept of ADS from a dream into a reality.

Scientists explain this in simple terms:  “In a typical fission reactor, atoms of heavy isotopes such as uranium-235 are broken apart, releasing energy. The process also releases extra neutrons, which collide with other atoms and break them apart in a chain reaction. The broken atoms are spent fuel that is cooled for a few years and then carefully stored for a few centuries. But a proposed new type of reactor built with this “cannon”—formally, a proton accelerator—could recycle this spent fuel, making it cheaper and safer to generate electricity.”

There is already a lot of information about the accelerator-driven system, or ADS. It consists of three parts: “the proton accelerator launches protons, the spallation target contains the heavy element to be split, and the sub-critical reactor contains the fuel which causes fission.” What happens is that the “accelerator fires protons at a heavy element (most likely bismuth) surrounded by a blanket of spent fuel and fresh fissile material (most likely thorium-232 or uranium-238)”. As a result, the target splits apart, “releasing neutrons that are absorbed by the spent fuel, turning it back into fissile heavy isotopes—that is, fresh nuclear fuel”. Significantly, this process is “self-terminating, and does not run the risk of a chain reaction or a meltdown”. 

Contrary to some countries that have entirely abandoned nuclear energy, “China sees fission as key to a more secure future”. It is the considered opinion in the scientific community that nuclear power is more efficient than wind or solar, and unlike fossil fuels, it does not emit greenhouse gases and particulate air pollution.

Notwithstanding the comparison, China has a desperate need to augment its energy sources. For, its oil consumption is the second highest in the world today. Over 70 per cent of its petroleum is imported. Any obstacle in the oil supplies can turn the country’s situation precarious. 

So, the country is trying to go nuclear for energy purposes. It is said the Chinese government proposes to spend over $440 billion by 2035 to build 150 more nuclear reactors. In this context, the new ADS technology makes its attempts at finding alternative and cheaper sources of fuel viable. 

The world, however, is keenly observing the developments in China’s nuclear-energy field to see if they reduce the possibility of radiological leaks and uncontrolled chain reactions through the development of safer systems. Japan’s Fukushima and the Russian Chernobyl disasters are still fresh in the mind. Even China experienced a situation when in June 2021 the Taishan nuclear power plant in Guangdong province had an alleged radiation leak, though controlled, from failed fuel rods. 

China is also investing heavily in building “a new generation of ocean-bound floating nuclear power plants, while also exploring nuclear fusion as a safer alternative to fission”.