by Rosalind Reischer
In early August, 2016, MIT Technology Review's Richard Martin wrote about his virtual reality tour through the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics' (SINAP) planned Molten Salt Reactor (MSR), giving him an inside look at the fourth generation technology SINAP has been developing in partnership with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). ORNL spent the better part of the 1950s and 60s developing MSR technology, and achieved over 13,000 hours of operation between January 1965 and December 1969. After the Nixon administration shuttered the project in 1969 to focus on development of light water reactors (LWR), MSR technology lay mostly dormant for the next half-century. Now, the technology is seeing a revival-not just by SINAP, but also by companies in Canada, Russia, and the U.S.
In 2015 Beijing announced plans for its first MSR demonstration project in Ruijin, Jiangxi province, and indicated that the project would potentially be modified to be thorium-powered in the future. The project's designers are currently working from a uranium-powered configuration but intend to eventually transition to thorium because is more plentiful and less vulnerable to proliferation. Researchers will require more time and funding in order to develop TMSRs for commercial use. The Ruijin reactor was scheduled to begin construction in 2017 and completed in 2021, but since the initial announcement in 2015 little activity has been reported. It is unlikely the project will hit its scheduled milestones.
The MSR is just one of six nuclear technologies classified by the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) as fourth generation. GIF is an international body composed of representatives from the nuclear regulatory boards of 13 countries. The goal areas GIF has established for fourth generation nuclear technology include fuel efficiency, reduction of waste, cost competitiveness, and "stringent standards of safety and proliferation resistance."  Besides the MSR the other GIF-sanctioned fourth generation technologies are Gas-cooled Fast Reactor (GFR), Lead-cooled Fast Reactor (LFR), Sodium-cooled Fast Reactor (SFR), Supercritical-water-cooled reactor (SCWR), and the Very-high-temperature Reactor (VHTR). Although most of the global research on these reactor types has been limited to purely theoretical work or small-scale experimental reactors, China has begun work on demonstration reactor projects for fourth generation technology, with the objective of commercial implementation as early as 2030.
China is a hot spot of activity in an industry that has been generally stagnant globally for over two decades. In addition to heightened nuclear safety concerns following Fukushima, low conventional energy prices have resulted in premature plant closures in the U.S. and elsewhere. In contrast, China has emerged as an industry leader, and its pursuit of fourth generation reactor designs could help revive the nuclear industry as a whole.
However, it is unlikely that China will be able to drive this revival on its own. In many instances the country's domestic suppliers do not have the manufacturing capabilities required for certain components. Even though fourth generation technology remains in the early stages of development, international collaboration on these technologies will pave the way for manufacturers and consumers to benefit from the advancement of nuclear reactor technology, and opportunities will abound for foreign companies hoping to take part in China's nuclear renaissance. Partnerships such as those between SINAP and Oak Ridge will benefit the nuclear industry in the U.S. and China, as well as ensure that U.S. manufacturers retain the "opportunity to compete in future salt-cooled reactor markets." As China pushes forward in its civil nuclear development, it should seek to continue cooperation with foreign companies so that it may build on their expertise in a manner that makes possible the realization of a commercially viable fleet of fourth generation nuclear reactors.