Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) last week signed an agreement with three Chinese companies to develop and demonstrate the use of thorium fuel and to study the commercial and technical feasibility of its full-scale application in CANDU reactors like the twin CANDU 6 that are being built in Qinshan III, southwest of Shanghai.

The agreement with China’s Third Qinshan Nuclear Power Company (TQNPC), China North Nuclear Fuel Corporation (CNNFC) and Nuclear Power Institute of China (NPIC) is the second phase of a cooperation agreement signed in November 2008 that focused on demonstrating the use of recovered uranium in a CANDU Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR). The first stage of the agreement, to be completed by Oct. 21, 2009, is a joint feasibility study to examine the economic feasibility of the thorium proposal.

Canadian Consul General Nadir Patel witnessed the signing ceremony between representatives of AECL, TQNPC, NPIC and CNNFC. The ceremony was held at the conclusion of a two-day technical seminar on enhanced CANDU 6 and thorium fuel.

Thorium fuel has been studied for decades by various countries, including India, Japan, Russia, and the UK, because it is three times more abundant in the Earth’s crust than uranium. Although it is not fissile, it will absorb slow neutrons to produce fissile U-233 when placed in a reactor. All of the mined thorium is also potentially usable in a reactor, compared to only 0.7% of natural uranium. India and Brazil hold a lion’s share of the world’s thorium reserves, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. 

“CANDU nuclear technology has the potential to make a major contribution to reducing China’s dependence on imported nuclear fuel resources by utilizing abundant domestic thorium resources,” said AECL’s Vice President of Product Development Jerry Hopwood in a press release last week. “This signing marks the initiation of an important step to demonstrate the use of thorium fuel in commercial CANDU reactors.”

AECL said that CANDU PHWR technology offers clear advantages over other reactor technologies in using thorium fuel. "AECL has investigated thorium fuels for over 50 years, including tests in a prototype CANDU power reactor in Canada, with very promising results."

Source: AECL