Scientists have pursued nuclear energy generation powered by thorium for nearly 75 years.
Thorium is abundant, meltdown-proof, produces less radioactive waste and is efficient. One ton of thorium is estimated to be able to generate the same amount of energy as 200 tons of uranium, or 3,500,000 tons of coal. That is a lot of energy— enough to power a country for tens of thousands of years.
Early thorium reactor prototypes were built by the United States in the past, but many of them were abandoned by the 1970s in favour of uranium. Early nuclear research was not aimed at distributing reliable energy to consumers; it was done to build atomic bombs. Thorium, unlike uranium, does not produce the plutonium needed for weaponization. The better fuel was largely discarded.
How did China do it?
The country announced at the annual Chinese Academy of Sciences conference in Shanghai in 2011 that it would be pursuing a thorium nuclear reactor. One article mused at the time that “The United States could conceivably become dependent on China for next-generation nuclear technology,” an astute prediction.
Very little progress was reported on the project, however, and construction didn’t start until 2018. In typical Chinese style, the project was completed in 2021 – half the time it was originally anticipated to take - which was pegged at six years.
How did they do it?
Between 2011 and 2018, Canada sold off nuclear reactor technology to the Chinese government. In 2014, a division of SNC-Lavalin called Candu Energy entered into an agreement with China National Nuclear Corporation.
China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), a state-owned enterprise whose president is appointed by the Premier of China, handles every aspect of China’s military nuclear programs.
While the CANDU reactors used uranium, they also had the potential to run on thorium.
Prior to this, under Jean Chretien's Liberal government, several CANDU reactors were sold to China in what came to be known as the CANDU controversy. Critics slammed the technology deal, citing China’s poor human rights record, and questioned sharing nuclear technology with weapons applications to an oft-hostile nation.
"I don't think," said Roy Culpeper, president of the Ottawa-based North-South Institute, "that China is necessarily a country that can be trusted to keep the peace."
The institution that created the CANDU reactors – the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), was sadly sold off for a song under Stephen Harper’s government for a mere $15 million to SNC-Lavalin in 2011, putting hundreds of scientists and researchers out of work. A statement released at the time said that the Government of Canada would retain intellectual property rights related to the sale.
SNC-Lavalin – a founding member of the Canada China Business Council, turned around and promptly signed an agreement initiated by Harper with China National Nuclear Corporation to build reactors that were estimated to be worth billions in 2016. CNNC Corporation continued to award SNC-Lavalin contracts over the years.
Justin Trudeau was present in Beijing for the signing ceremony.
Two years later, after years of stagnation, they began construction on their own thorium-fuelled reactor.
A headline from a 2017 article reads “Why Canada Is Selling Advanced Nuclear Reactors to China: Future reactors might be powered by thorium, a long-held nuclear dream.”
It would appear that— with the assistance of Canada— that dream has finally been realized.
While Canada stood and still stands to benefit from the partnership, China has announced its plans to sell its thorium reactors worldwide.
In 2020, the United States Department of Defense sanctioned and blacklisted CNNC for links to the military and the People’s Liberation Army. SNC-Lavalin’s Candu Energy continued to do business with the company.
As Justin Trudeau’s government throws billions of taxpayer dollars at “green” solutions and decimates the Canadian natural energy industry, China continues to build coal plants whose pollution obliterates any gains Canada could hope to make. At the same time, Chinese scientists ambitiously pursue new nuclear options using Canadian technology. Canada meanwhile turned to inefficient and predominantly Chinese technology like wind, solar and battery options to try to single-handedly solve climate change while vetoing natural gas projects.
And this is why China wins.