US gives China the advantage in next-generation nuclear technology

By J Michael Waller / Center for Security Policy / July 13, 2020 – China is building a massive nuclear energy program that will ultimately enable the Communist regime to power a nuclear navy to take on America’s fleet worldwide.

Just as US politicians and businesses allowed the nation to become dependent on China for pharmaceuticals, electronics, and strategic minerals, they are helping Beijing to make America dependent on advanced nuclear technology. This can stop with a simple act of Congress that is unusually united against the Xi Jinping regime.

Surrendering an American innovation to Beijing

Short-sighted legacy programs that began under the Clinton administration, continued through George W. Bush and accelerated under Obama, persist under the Trump administration to give Beijing a decisive advantage.

That advantage is a molten-salt reactor, a liquid-fueled nuclear reactor invented by American scientists more than a half-century ago. The US never invested in developing the technology, in large part because the byproducts of its energy generation did not include plutonium, the warhead core of thermonuclear weapons.

To ensure a strong nuclear deterrent against the Soviets during the Cold War, the US sponsored pressurized water reactors, fueled by uranium, for military submarine propulsion. This technology was later adapted to civilian power use. The waste produced from those reactors includes plutonium, which increases the lifetime of the waste and also makes it prone to weapons proliferation..

Beijing sees value in molten-salt reactors. US does not.

Proponents argue that new generations of molten-salt reactors can provide electric power on land and propel ships at sea. Being under low pressure, they are smaller in size and don’t require huge containment domes. They produce less radioactive waste than  today’s high-pressure uranium-fueled reactors. Because of the inherent nature of the technology, they cannot melt down.

Molten-salt reactors are well-suited to generate power from another radioactive element, thorium, which is vastly more abundant than uranium and promises to greatly reduce the problem of nuclear waste.

Those features have led many U.S.-based startups to pursue the technology, but they haven’t gotten far.

Communist China, by contrast, has made huge advances – with American expertise.

Nearly a decade ago, the Chinese Academy of Science launched its own thorium molten-salt reactor program spearheaded by Jiang Mianheng, son of former President Jiang Zemin, which in a one-party regime like China’s is a sign of highest-level political commitment. The younger Jiang was ousted under Xi Jinping’s political consolidation, but Xi has made sure the thorium reactor program has grown in size and scope.

The United States government continues to assist China’s crash program

How thorium molten-salt reactors work

Thorium reactors create a synthetic uranium isotope, U-233, which the US first discovered during the Manhattan Project. U-233 “splits” when struck by a neutron to produce energy and two or more neutrons. This means one neutron can continue the chain reaction while the other is absorbed in thorium to form new U-233. Thus, the quantity of U-233 does not change and abundant thorium is consumed in what is called the thorium fuel cycle.

Molten-salt reactors are particularly well-suited for the thorium fuel cycle. Half a century ago, Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee successfully ran an experimental reactor that demonstrated feasibility.

As it ages, U-233 creates life-saving byproducts: Isotopes with the right set of properties for use in targeted cancer treatment.

So it makes sense for the United States to keep its small but unique inventory of U-233 that survives from the Cold War-era research project.

US is destroying $6 billion worth of U-233 that could add billions more to the economy

For decades, US leaders had no idea about putting its small but vital U-233 resource to work for productive purposes. So the material has sat, as it does today, at an old Cold War-era storage site at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

The American taxpayers paid about $6 billion to create U-233. As science and technology advanced, though, the Department of Energy, which runs the lab, kept the isotope in storage and never found a use for it.

Instead of allowing it to be deployed as a source of advanced, inexpensive, safe nuclear energy, Congress and presidents from both parties agreed to destroy it.

It was a shortsighted decision.

As a result, the Energy Department is paying a company to destroy America’s U-233 inventory. Some people recognized the error from the start. In a 2008 special report, the department’s inspector general criticized the destruction program, called down-blending, and recommended reconsideration.

Bill Gates got a special monopoly deal

Subsequently, TerraPower – one of Bill Gates’ many “startups” – cut a sweetheart deal with the Department of Energy. TerraPower is paying the DOE contractor  $90 million to acquire valuable radioisotopes  while destroying America’s entire stock of U-233. These isotopes are used for cancer treatment.

Proponents justify the destruction of the U-233 because it supposedly saves taxpayer money. But the absurdity of this premise is laid bare when considering that the US spent 70 times that much to develop the U-233, and the isotope and its byproducts, if put to use, would add many billions to the American economy.

Once finished, the TerraPower deal will not only foreclose on America’s promising thorium reactor technology. It would grant TerraPower a virtual monopoly on radioisotope cancer treatments for the foreseeable future. Those aren’t the only problems. Destruction of the nation’s dormant U-233 supply will benefit Communist China’s future military expansion as a global naval power.

China needs to manufacture U-233 . . .

Thorium reactors require an initial “seed” of U-233 to start the chain reaction to generate energy. China, whose thorium ambitions have expanded to include development of aircraft carriers, has little if any U-233. However, it has plenty of thorium, which is a byproduct of rare-earth mining on which China enjoys an uncontested monopoly.

For the Chinese military to build a modern fleet of warships powered by thorium reactors, it must create a viable inventory of U-233. Beijing seems to be borrowing a concept devised in India to create U-233 from thorium by consuming spent nuclear fuel in fast breeder reactors.

In 2017, the South China Morning Post cited a researcher associated with the program claiming that a new facility in Gansu province will support thorium reactor development. More recent reporting suggests that the massive Gansu project, which is progressing rapidly, will be home to a spent fuel reprocessing facility. A pilot fast breeder reactor is under construction.

. . . and Bill Gates’ company unwittingly helped

Meanwhile, Bill Gates’ TerraPower, while taking American tax dollars , tried to transfer fast breeder technology to the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation. Here we see TerraPower providing China with a key technology while simultaneously endorsing and abetting the destruction of the American U-233 inventory. To an objective observer, this would seem to be helping China against interests of the United States.

The Trump Administration prevented TerraPower from providing that advantage to the adversary. But it has not stopped DOE’s contract to destroy the U-233.

As with all American innovation centers, the Chinese regime has had a strong interest in Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Prior to the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ announcement of the thorium molten-salt reactor program in 2011, local Oak Ridge outlets had reported a spike in Chinese visitors. In hindsight, the visits were clearly prompted by the lab’s legacy as a molten-salt reactor pioneer.

Obama administration made secret tech transfer deal with China

The next year, under the Obama Administration, the Chinese Academy of Sciences signed a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Energy to “collaborate” on thorium reactors.

Since the US had no domestic program, the memorandum prompted questions about how exactly the nation would benefit from such a collaboration. On two separate occasions – in 2011 and 2014 – then-assistant secretary of energy Peter Lyons told Congress that there was no advantage to pursuing thorium reactors in the United States.

However, Lyons was a key player in securing the partnership with Communist China. He became co-chair of the partnership’s executive committee. While the memorandum wasn’t classified, the Obama Administration kept the document out of public view. Lack of public documents and the Energy Department’s reticence on the matter prompted concerned advocates to file a Freedom of Information Act request to shed light on the secret deal with Beijing.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences partnership with the Obama Administration was unusual in another way: The entirety of the funding came from China.

There’s still time to save America’s U-233

America remains conspicuously absent from the race to develop thorium reactors – a revolutionary technology developed by American scientists in our national labs.

At the same time, the US is actively destroying its U-233 inventory, creating a monopoly on U-233-derived cancer treatments by handing over rare isotopes to Bill Gates, whose company tried to provide the Chinese regime with American breeder reactor technology. The U-233 created from such fast breedersis likely to power Beijing’s next-generation aircraft carriers and other long-range warships that will use thorium molten salt technology.

All the while, the US continues to allow China to capture our technology and expertise by bankrolling the Department of Energy.

The Xi Jinping regime’s control of thorium technology will prove an existential threat to US economic competitiveness and national security. Allowing our own Department of Energy to continue to aid the Chinese regime, while destroying the American inventory of U-233, will all but assure that America will become dependent on Beijing for advanced nuclear energy.

Click here for the original Center for Security Policy article.