Did China just figure out how to make nuclear energy safe?

Experts believe there’s a cleaner, safer and better way to harvest nuclear energy. With its newest power plant, China might be first to get there.

Scientists are very excited about an experimental reactor in Wuwei, China, and so are environmentalists. The reactor is cooled by molten salts instead of water, and instead of using uranium, like most commercial nuclear plants, it’s fuelled by thorium. Thorium is a weakly radioactive metal that is much more abundant than uranium. It’s also not as messy, producing less waste that remains toxic for a fraction of the time.

Even in terms of safety, thorium trumps uranium. Thorium can’t cause a reactor meltdown, and it cannot be used to create nuclear weapons as easily.

So why has thorium not been used before? It has. Thorium was tried early on as fuel for nuclear power plants. But it was abandoned because it couldn’t be weaponized during the Cold War.

Catching up to uranium-fuelled plants and making thorium commercially viable would require risking a huge investment. China clearly feels it’s worth a punt. It’s confident the first commercial plants to go online in 2030.