The Chinese government has hauled forward the deadline for the country's introduction of thorium nuclear reactors, reducing the originally scheduled development time by 60 per cent.

The China Academy of Sciences has been informed by Beijing that the deadline for the development of the world’s first thorium-based nuclear plant has been dragged forward 15 years to 2024, with the central government hoping that a workable device can be unveiled in as soon as a decade.

Beijing had originally given researchers at the Shanghai-based China Academy of Sciences 25 years to develop a working thorium reactor, yet concerns about the country’s burgeoning pollution woes and looming energy crisis have compelled the government to dramatically reduce that timeframe.

The mandate from Beijing comes just following the declaration of a “war on pollution” by Premier Li Keqiang during a meeting of China’s national legislature earlier this month, as worsening smog has a devastating impact on air quality in urban centres, and threatens to foment popular unrest.

According to Professor Li Zhong, a scientist working on the project, the priority of the government has shifted from addressing the energy dilemmas of the future to dealing with the environment problems of the present.

“In the past the government was interested in nuclear power because of the energy shortage. now they are more interested because of smog,” said Li to the South China Morning Post.

Despite dramatically dialling up funding for solar and wind energy to become the world’s biggest investor in renewables, China continues to remain heavily dependent upon coal to fuel its economy, a fact which which underlies the onerous air pollution of the country’s major cities.

Many experts now believe that nuclear power is the best means that China has at hand to resolve its coal dependence and concomitant air pollution dilemma. Professor Gu Zhongmao of the China Institute of Atomic Energy asserts that “nuclear power is the only option” for completely dealing with the problem of urban smog, and that if China had as many nuclear power stations as France and Japan does it would “enjoy blue skies and clean air.”

 thorium nuclear reactors

Energy security remains another consideration, with China’s existing fleet of uranium plants dependent upon imports of the radioactive material from abroad. The transition to thorium would dramatically raise China’s ability to power itself independently, as according to some experts it is host to the world’s third largest reserves of the material.

While the government’s urgent drive for thorium is expedient from a political viewpoint, scientists and engineers actually working on the project remain skeptical about the possibility of developing a working thorium reactor within such a short timeframe.

A number of practical challenges continue to hamper efforts to develop a functioning thorium plant. These include the corrosive nature of the chemicals produced by the reactor’s molten salts, the extreme temperatures needed for the reactor to operate, and the lack of substantive knowledge on the physical and chemical attributes of thorium itself.

Researchers from the China Academy of Social Sciences said that despite the “war-like” pressure to bring the project to fruition, these challenges could be impossible to resolve within the stipulated timeframe, while Gu Zhongmao said they could take multiple decades to successfully address.