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The nuclear option

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China is vigorously promoting nuclear energy, but its pursuit of reprocessing is misguided.

If there’s one country that could disprove the old joke among engineers about nuclear power — that nothing can compete with a paper reactor — it may be China. Nuclear power is enjoying a theoretical renaissance in the United States, with researchers advancing a new generation of inherently safe designs and with start-up companies attracting venture capital. But so far, only China has shown the kind of long-term, strategic thinking that would be required to launch a real nuclear revival.

Nuclear engineers from elsewhere know this, and are racking up frequent-flier points on trips to Beijing and Shanghai to support partnerships that may put paper reactors to the test. Already, China is building a 210-megawatt demonstration of a pebble-bed reactor, led by researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing. It could come online by next year, marking a first for safer ‘generation IV’ reactor designs.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences is also working with the US Department of Energy on molten-salt reactors, which were originally developed and tested at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee in the 1960s. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge are pursuing a partnership to advance an entirely new design that includes elements of both molten-salt and pebble-bed reactors. And the relative newcomer TerraPower, which is based in Bellevue, Washington, and funded by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and others, has signed a memorandum of understanding with the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) to pursue the company’s ‘travelling wave reactor’, which is designed to minimize the need for uranium enrichment.

These partnerships illustrate the advantages of international collaboration. China thinks big and moves quickly, and the world may one day reap the benefits. But the country’s zeal for advanced nuclear technology has an ominous side: China’s latest five-year plan also promotes the reprocessing of nuclear fuel. CNNC officials are currently negotiating with the French nuclear giant Areva to build such a facility.

The promise of nuclear reprocessing has not panned out. The idea dates back to the beginning of the nuclear era, when officials feared a shortage of uranium resources. Plutonium extracted from spent fuel would be redeployed in breeder reactors, which produce more fuel than they consume. But as it turns out, there is more than enough uranium for the foreseeable future. Moreover, the technologies proved expensive, and the risks became all too clear in 1974 when India used reprocessed plutonium in its first nuclear bomb.

“ China thinks big and moves quickly, and the world may one day reap the benefits. ”

For all of these reasons, the United States and many other nations abandoned the idea decades ago. The United Kingdom is closing its reprocessing operations, and the world would be a safer place if countries such as France and Japan followed suit. China should abandon reprocessing before the inevitable bureaucratic momentum builds up. Instead, the country should focus on reducing costs and developing technologies that might enable nuclear energy to play a larger part.

As it stands, the short-term outlook is mixed. Some 444 nuclear reactors currently operate around the world, accounting for as much as 11% of global electricity production. Another 64 are under construction, including 22 in China. But many of the existing reactors are getting old and will need to be replaced. Meanwhile, the public and politicians in many countries are warier than ever after the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan. An optimistic projection by the International Atomic Energy Agency suggests that global nuclear-power capacity could increase by a factor of 2.5 by 2050. In a pessimistic scenario, the agency suggests that overall nuclear-power production could remain roughly flat.

New reactors have struggled to compete with other forms of energy production, and perhaps the biggest barrier is the huge upfront cost. It is simpler, faster and cheaper, at least in the short run, to build natural-gas-fired power plants, or to install wind turbines and solar systems.

The US Department of Energy is funding nuclear-energy research, with the support of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Congress. But what nuclear power really needs is a comprehensive climate policy that puts a price on carbon emissions and rewards all low-carbon energies. Short of that, the nuclear industry’s best hope may be China.

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The nuclear option. Nature 533, 7–8 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/533007b

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