Fail-Safe Nuclear Power

In February I flew through the interior of a machine that could represent the future of nuclear power. I was on a virtual-reality tour at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics in China, which plans in the next few years to build an experimental reactor whose design makes a meltdown far less likely. Inside the core—a superhot, intensely radioactive place where no human will ever go—the layers of the power plant peeled back before me: the outer vessel of stainless steel, the inner layer of a high-tech alloy, and finally the nuclear fuel itself, tens of thousands of billiard-ball-size spheres containing particles of radioactive material.

Given unprecedented access to the inner workings of China’s advanced nuclear RD program, I was witnessing a new nuclear technology being born. Through the virtual reactor snaked an intricate system of pipes carrying the fluid that makes this system special: a molten salt that cools the reactor and carries heat to drive a turbine and make electricity. At least in theory, this type of reactor can’t suffer the kind of catastrophic failure that happened at Chernobyl and Fukushima, making unnecessary the expensive and redundant safety systems that have driven up the cost of conventional reactors. What’s more, the new plants should produce little waste and might even eat up existing nuclear waste. They could run on uranium, which powers 99 percent of the nuclear power plants in the world, or they could eventually run on thorium, which is cleaner and more abundant. The ultimate goal of the Shanghai Institute: to build a molten-salt reactor that could replace the 1970s-era technology in today’s nuclear power plants and help wean China off the coal that fouls the air of Shanghai and Beijing, ushering in an era of cheap, abundant, zero-carbon energy.

Over the next two decades China hopes to build the world’s largest nuclear power industry. Plans include as many as 30 new conventional nuclear plants (in addition to the 34 reactors operating today) as well as a variety of next-generation reactors, including thorium molten-salt reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (which, like molten-salt reactors, are both highly efficient and inherently safe), and sodium-cooled fast reactors (which can consume spent fuel from conventional reactors to make electricity). Chinese planners want not only to dramatically expand the country’s domestic nuclear capacity but also to become the world’s leading supplier of nuclear reactors and components, a prospect that many Western observers find alarming.

An experimental reactor built by Enrico Fermi and his team at the University of Chicago produces the first controlled nuclear chain reaction.

The Shippingport nuclear plant, the first full-scale reactor to supply electricity to the grid, starts up in Pennsylvania. It will run until 1982.

Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory build and run an experimental molten-salt reactor. The program will be formally canceled in 1973.

A cooling malfunction causes a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, bringing new reactor construction in the U.S. to a standstill.

An effort to develop a new nuclear power technology, the Clinch River breeder reactor program, is canceled after consuming more than $1 billion. No prototype or demonstration reactor was ever built.

The worst nuclear disaster in history occurs at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine, furthering the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s and 1990s.

Unit No. 1 at the Watts Bar plant, in Tennessee, begins producing power. It will be the last new nuclear reactor to come online in the United States until 2016, when a second unit at Watts Bar starts up.

An earthquake and tsunami cause a coolant failure and fuel meltdown at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power station in Japan. That leads several countries to start phasing out nuclear plants.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory signs an agreement with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to develop molten-salt reactors.

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