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China Power The Military Transportation

China Will Spend $3.3 Billion to Research Molten Salt Nuclear-Powered Drones (scmp.com) 194

Long-time Slashdot reader WindBourne tipped us off to some news from The South China Morning Post: China is to spend 22 billion yuan (US$3.3 billion) trying to perfect a form of technology largely discarded in the cold war which could produce a safer but more powerful form of nuclear energy. The cash is to develop two "molten salt" reactors in the Gobi Desert in northern China. Researchers hope that if they can solve a number of technical problems the reactors will lead to a range of applications, including nuclear-powered warships and drones. The technology, in theory, can create more heat and power than existing forms of nuclear reactors that use uranium, while producing only one thousandth of the radioactive waste. It also has the advantage for China of using thorium as its main fuel. China has some of the world's largest reserves of the metal...

The reactors use molten salt rather than water as a coolant, allowing them to create temperatures of over 800 degrees Celsius, nearly three times the heat produced by a commercial nuclear plant fuelled with uranium. The superhot air has the potential to drive turbines and jet engines and in theory keep a bomber flying at supersonic speed for days.

One Beijing researcher says these drones "would serve as a platform for surveillance, communication or weapon delivery to deter nuclear and other threats from hostile countries." He asked not to be named, but provided one more advantage for a nuclear-powered drone flying at high-altitudes over the ocean.

"It will also have more public acceptance. If an accident happens, it crashes into the sea."
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China Will Spend $3.3 Billion to Research Molten Salt Nuclear-Powered Drones

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  • They can now take air superiority over the South China Sea and if any of the other countries with claims to the area shoot the drone down, they're the bad guys for causing an ecological disaster.
    • What does 'air superiority' mean to you? Is it taken by bomber sized aircraft?

      I don't know who put the drone/military spin on this. IMHO it reflects internal Chinese politics, we aren't the intended audience, but it's interesting.

      China getting into the salt cooled reactor research business is generally good news. Actual, practical, military applications are pretty few and far between. If anybody can get fast breeders to work, it will be good for the world. And sure, _maybe_ future carriers and subs wil

      • by PPH ( 736903 )

        And sure, _maybe_ future carriers and subs will be powered by them.

        Why not commercial shipping? Get rid of bunker oil as a fuel and go a long way to eliminating greenhouse gasses. Nukes were tried once [wikipedia.org]. Had they held out for a few more years (through the first oil crisis) this would have even become economical.

        • Re:Clever Move (Score:5, Interesting)

          by HornWumpus ( 783565 ) on Saturday December 16, 2017 @02:20PM (#55752025)

          When you let a salt cooled reactor shut down, the salt solidifies and you're fucked. Now it's time to take it apart and cleanup.

          That's how these experiments usually end. How they ended for the USA, France and Japan. Good luck to China, seriously, good luck to them, not snark.

          The commercial shipping world isn't known for it's record of scrupulous preventive maintenance and professionalism below decks. Much of it is known for the opposite.

          Bunker oil is dirtier, more sulpher, more soot. Same CO2, more or less. The particulates are, if anything, countering the warming. The seas are huge and not densely filled with shipping. Pollution from ocean going shipping is low on sensible priority lists. 'All costs are opportunity costs!'

          • Yet the Soviets operated molten lead/bismuth cooled reactors in their Alfa subs for a few decades -- it's apparently possible to keep the reactors running or heated so the coolant never freezes.
            • Yes, this is one of the reasons a number of islands in Arcrtic seas are now permanently off-limits to humans as the radiation levels will remain too high from nuclear submarines that were scuttled or were accidentally lost and their reactors breached. Sadly, so many fish sticks and other fish-food products now have higher baseline levels of radiation.

          • by boa ( 96754 )

            CO2 aside, ships pollute a lot

            http://www.industrytap.com/wor... [industrytap.com]

          • by PPH ( 736903 )

            When you let a salt cooled reactor shut down, the salt solidifies

            How do you start it the first time? (I'm guessing some sort of heating loop.)

          • The particulates are, if anything, countering the warming

            We need global regulations to establish a minimum particulate output for diesel engines to stop people using particulate filters. /s

            Actually I wonder if you could use high sulphur jet fuel to introduce sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to do geoengineering.

            The Royal Society did a report on geoengineering here which mentions sulphate aerosols - basically the SO2 forms droplets which increase the albedo and cool the planet

            https://royalsociety.org/topic... [royalsociety.org]

            https://royalsociety.org/~/med... [royalsociety.org]

            • Those sulfer compounds create sulpheric acid (acid rain) that kills fresh water fish.
              • If you look on page 48 of the pdf you'll see

                https://royalsociety.org/~/med... [royalsociety.org]

                An increase in acid rain appears to be unlikely to be a problem, as the perturbation to the global sulphur cycle by these stratospheric emissions is quite small (natural volcanic emissions
                are ~50 MtS/yr, and industrial emissions are much larger).

                Delivering between 1 and 5 MtS/yr to the stratosphere is feasible. The mass involved is less than a tenth of the current annual payload of the global air transportation, and commercial transport aircraft already reach the lower stratosphere. Methods of delivering the required mass to the stratosphere depend on the required delivery altitude, assuming that the highest required altitude would be that needed to access the lower tropical stratosphere, about 20 km, then the most cost-effective delivery method would probably be a custom built fl eet of aircraft, although rockets, aircraft/rocket combinations, artillery and balloons have all been suggested. Very rough cost estimates based on existing aircraft and artillery technology suggest that costs would be of the order of 3 to 30 $/kg putting the total annual cost at 10s of billion dollars (US National Academy of Science 1992; Keith 2000; Blackstock et al. 2009). The environmental impacts of the delivery system itself would of course also need to be carefully considered.

    • by hey! ( 33014 )

      One of the great accomplishments of the developers of game theory is that the moved us beyond strategy that was based on assuming your opponent would do something stupid.

    • Flying nuclear reactors are never a clever idea. Fukushima produced detectable nuclear contamination across the entire Pacific ocean due to a leak. How much worse will it be if the containment vessel shatters due to a high speed impact? Plus, even if they spend most of their time over the ocean they have to land somewhere and a crash on land will cause a lot of contamination. The technology is interesting but let's hope they are clever and stick to land and sea-based applications.
      • Flying nuclear reactors are never a clever idea.

        Hanford nuclear reservation (USA) tried an Atomic Airplane. The problem they couldn't avoid is the sheilding required made it too heavy to fly. Guess drones don't require any, just distance.

        • Sure they do, unless you want the ground crews and mechanics to die of radiation exposure.
          • > unless you want the ground crews and mechanics to die of radiation exposure.

            Right, because suits aren't an actual thing.

            • The kind of suit required to stop neutrons and high-energy gammas will be impossible to work in. Not to mention that neutrons have the interesting property of inducing radioactivity in shielding material.
        • A remote drone has a much reduced need for shielding.
          e.g. a semi-permanent drone patrolling the uninhabited pacific at 2 km high would not need much shielding and could easily even avoid ships and planes closer than a few miles. Hang a few antiship, air-to-air, and antipersonnel missiles on it, and replace much of the blue water surface navy patrols.
          2 km distance makes even popping a neutron bomb less hazardous...
      • Make them land on water and you eliminate the "Land" problem. Make the reactor removeable and you can do the maintenance on the aircraft safely. If it crashes in the ocean the radioactive stuff will freeze and be easily recoverable (or forgotten).
  • Meanwhite... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Saturday December 16, 2017 @01:43PM (#55751905) Journal

    While China is exerting its technical superiority, here in the US, the regime in power has banned the use of the phrases, "science-based" and "evidence-based" from government-funded scientific organizations.

    https://www.usatoday.com/story... [usatoday.com]

    We are so fucked.

    • While China is exerting its technical superiority,

      It's not technical superiority, it's political superiority.

      US scientists and engineers could build you a molten salt nuke . . . if you let them. Any talk of nuke research will arouse the anti-nuke folks, who will block it.

      In China, folks who oppose their nuke projects are given shovels, and forced to help build it.

      • They did - the Seawolf (SSN-575) had a molten salt reactor in the 50's. Hell, Russian Alfas had them in the 70's/80's/90's.
        BTW, I heard they dumped the Seawolf's off the Farallon's at some point and replaced it with the more common water cooled version.
        It wasn't thorium based though.

        • No, it didn't. It had a sodium-cooled (liquid metal) reactor, which must have been fun to operate, considering what happens when you combine sodium + water. (Hint: pssssssssssshBOOM!)
          • Uhhh... That's exactly what a molten salt reactor is...

            • Molten salt involves a molten ionic compound (salt). Not a pure metal or alloy.

              Back to Chem 101 wit'ch'ya.

              • Sodium is a metal. Maybe you shouldn't have dropped. I noticed how you tried to disqualify it though.

                You seem to be confused between molten salt fueled versus molten salt cooled reactors.

                • Seawolf reactor used conventional solid fuel rods, not molten salt. Neither the coolant nor fuel were molten salt.
                  • Originally Seawolf reactor was sodium cooled, later replaced with more conventional water cooled reactor. It's still distinctly detectable (I've heard) in the dumping area near the Farralon's.

                    It's why Seawolf wasn't launched before Nautilus, even though it was laid down first.

                    I was mixing salt cooled with salt fueled, not you, apologies. I was lumping them together for some reason.

                • It had a sodium-cooled (liquid metal) reactor

                  That's exactly what a molten salt reactor is...

                  Molten salt involves a molten ionic compound (salt).

                  Sodium is a metal.

                  So your "logic" is that because salts can contain metals, metals are salts? That's not how implications work. That's how equivalences work, but there's no equivalence here.

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        US scientists and engineers could build you a molten salt nuke... If you *pay* them.

        It's not a good investment. No one is willing to throw billions at a technology that has failed repeatedly in the past and which is rapidly being replaced anyway.

        The Chinese government is only doing it for military purposes.

        • Molten salt Thorium reactors didn't fail. The US stopped using them (after they were shown to work) because pressurized light water reactors produce plutonium for nuclear weapons and thorium reactors don't. Given the entire American nuclear industry is designed for weapons production, it makes no sense to spend money on something that can't.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      There is something seriously wrong with those people:

      Trump administration is banning the federal health agency from using seven words or phrases in any official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.

      The words are: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

      Soon expressions like "Russian influence" and "buying election manipulation services with pocket money from the father-in-law" are banned as well. Isn't entitlement just a normal word in budgets, taxation and compensation package contracts? And how might one research fetus health without mentioning the word fetus? Or research seasonal flu within the vulnerable parts of the population without using the word vulnerable? Maybe they just call them unmentiona

      • Re:Meanwhite... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by turkeyfish ( 950384 ) on Saturday December 16, 2017 @04:53PM (#55752663)

        The GOP recognizes that such word bans will now be essential, since they are essentially ending funding for prevention of the spread of Zika Virus and other mosquito vectored diseases. The last thing they want to have is someone quoting the terms "science-based" or "evidence based", or "fetus" in government documents that demonstrate that the failure to mitigate the deleterious effects of these diseases in arguing against the Trump administration's anti-science based positions that are likely to kill thousands in the decades to come, particularly now that with global warming is expanding vector ranges of tropical diseases northward at an astounding clip.

        If the evangelicals ever figured out that Zika will probably kill more of the "unborn" than abortions in the decades to come, it would have a devastating effect on his base. Better to ban the word, than let the truth come out from their perspective.

      • by Dantoo ( 176555 )

        I think they should stick to "susceptible*, *rights*, *variance*, *identity transposition*, *foetus*, *research indicates* and *verifiable by testing*"

        It would have the added benefit of being more convincing in an argument. Most tire of the same dross spewed out by style manuals and their ilk.

    • Washington Post, Article -> Re hashed by USAToday Journalist?? in USAToday??
      From the Washington Post article
      :"a CDC analyst who attended the meeting but wanted to remain anonymous told the newspaper."

      Someone needed to turn in an article, so wrote one about the Washington Post article saying such and such, and their proof is from an anonymous source from the original article.

      "anonymous source" Who knows if it is true or not, so until a fact appears a sane person would disregard it!!

      Just Saying!!
      • "anonymous source" Who knows if it is true or not, so until a fact appears a sane person would disregard it!!

        Just Saying!!

        This from the crowd that brought you Pizzagate.

        • "anonymous source" Who knows if it is true or not, so until a fact appears a sane person would disregard it!!

          Just Saying!!

          This from the crowd that brought you Pizzagate.

          Oh, that's real. Pizzagate ships teh Children to the sge in the Arizona Desert where the fake moon landings were filmed by Kubrick, and O'Blama and Hellery have theie way with the kids on top of the barrels of chemtrail juice and the real copies of his Kenyan Birth certificate. It's also where the 50 plus people that the Clinton's had murdered are decomposing while they take videos and laugh, laugh, laugh.

          Republicans are all about fact based shit.

    • Luckily the CDC does not provide the oversight for military nuclear power reactors, so not sure why you think this is relevant. You also might want to read a source article instead of whatever headlines made into your echo chamber, because your presentation doesn't match the facts. You pasted a link, but you seem to have not read it.

      • Luckily the CDC does not provide the oversight for military nuclear power reactors, so not sure why you think this is relevant.

        I suppose we should wait until the Trump administration tells the Department of Energy that they're banning the words "radiation" and "nuclear waste".

    • Re:Meanwhite... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by hey! ( 33014 ) on Saturday December 16, 2017 @03:08PM (#55752227) Homepage Journal

      I've read the original WaPo report on this *carefully*, and at present the effect is limited to budgetary documents that are being sent to Congress. It does not affect working scientists or epidemiologists... yet. So my interpretation is that while we should expect policy and research priorities to change, the ban on the seven dirty words at the CDC isn't evidence of that. At present it seems to be more about how the agency presents itself to Congress.

      It's interesting that "evidence-based" and "science-based" should be thrown into the ban-bin with "fetus" and "transgender" as terms that are likely to cause an unfavorable Congressional reaction.

      • I've read the original WaPo report on this *carefully*, and at present the effect is limited to budgetary documents that are being sent to Congress. It does not affect working scientists or epidemiologists...

        I'm pretty sure scientists or epidemiologists are not likely to use words like, "science-based" or "evidence-based", because duh.

        Why is the Trump administration banning words at all?

      • I've read the original WaPo report on this *carefully*, and at present the effect is limited to budgetary documents that are being sent to Congress.

        /quote? Well, we are working in teh right direction. Words need to be banned. It's the American way.

      • It's interesting that "evidence-based" and "science-based" should be thrown into the ban-bin with "fetus" and "transgender" as terms that are likely to cause an unfavorable Congressional reaction.

        "Interesting". I do not think that word means what you think it means.

    • While China is exerting its technical superiority, here in the US, we are building a state-of-the-art coal powered steam drone. #MAGA!

      FTFY

      • While China is exerting its technical superiority, here in the US, we are building a state-of-the-art coal powered steam drone. #MAGA!

        Make that "clean coal".

        • While China is exerting its technical superiority, here in the US, we are building a state-of-the-art coal powered steam drone. #MAGA!

          Make that "clean coal".

          Just takes a little dishwashing detergent.

    • Let's wait until November 2018.

  • by b0s0z0ku ( 752509 ) on Saturday December 16, 2017 @01:45PM (#55751923)

    Project Pluto, a nuclear-powered cruise missile popping out H-bombs like Pez. One of the "advantages" of the thing was the radioactive exhaust from its air-cooled reactor, also known as "halitosis" -- it was a weapon in itself.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

    Molten salt is probably better than direct-cycle air-cooled, but it will still be an ecological disaster if it crashes into the sea. Also, why bother vs satellites and solar or fuel-powered drones (for surveillance) and conventional missiles (for attacking things).

    Conventional hardware (ex solar) might not be able to stay in flight for as long, but a country can make more of them for a fraction of the cost of nuclear-powered drones.

    • If you want to get all fancy-pants, just go FOBS -- fractional-orbit bombardment system. A missile designed to launch a nuke or ten into orbit and attack from any direction -- evading most ground-based missile-defense systems. (i.e. the US worries about an attack over the Pole, not one coming by way of the Baja peninsula. Immigration jokes aside...)
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Hopefully in 50-100 years we will be using renewable power everywhere, and dirty tech like coal and nuclear, while they had their day, are unnecessary. Molten salt is a big reduction in waste, but the fuel is still dangerous and the waste not easily managed.

    • You can't run a cargo ship off wind power, and solar power would be too slow. I suppose you could build the train linking America to China via Siberia/Alaska/Canada, and power that with electricity.
  • "It will also have more public acceptance. If an accident happens, it crashes into the sea."

    Do you want Gojira? Because this is how you get Gojira.

    • Why is it that so many people think that the oceans should be used as an open sewer and that there is no such thing as ocean currents?

  • by gurps_npc ( 621217 ) on Saturday December 16, 2017 @03:00PM (#55752197) Homepage

    It does not create weapons grade radioactive materials. If you have a thorium based nuclear reactor you end up with low amounts of radioactive waste and can not build nuclear bombs. If you use the more traditional nuclear power plants, you get all this fun stuff that can be used to build a nuclear bomb.

    The USA wanted nuclear bombs, so we ignored this technology.

    • by hey! ( 33014 )

      The difference is that the US is a democracy and it's very, very hard to get any kind of public support for anything that won't make anyone money until after most of the people currently in office will probably be out of office.

      Despite democracy's many advantages, it doesn't mean that a one-party autocracy run by apparachniks with long term career security can't have its own advantages.

    • by niks42 ( 768188 )
      Further - the one reason we find it hard to mine rare earth oxides in the US is that the waste byproduct is Thorium, which we don't know how to deal with. If there were a way of consuming the Thorium, we could avoid importing rare earth products from the Far East ..
    • by iggymanz ( 596061 ) on Saturday December 16, 2017 @09:43PM (#55753561)

      actually, thorium reactor does create U-233 which has been used in weapons, but also contains U-232 which causes the problems of high gamma ray emission and hence argument that the the U-233 would be too radiactive to easily handle, and also that it would make near-critial masses unstable with risk of predetonation....but there are now ways the two could be separated, for example by laser. So certainly a government with deep enough wallets to have a thorium reactor program (russia, india, china) could also make bombs from one.

  • by doom ( 14564 ) <doom@kzsu.stanford.edu> on Saturday December 16, 2017 @03:51PM (#55752393) Homepage Journal

    The United States did some work on the idea of nuclear powered military aircraft way back when-- it was always a pretty whacked idea. Like, part of the design involved shielding just the pilot compartment and spewing radiation to the rear and the sides (thus discouraging pursuit aircraft! Win-win!). They got as far as building a gigagntic "hot-cell" to park the thing in so it could be worked on without killing yourself.

    As Freeman Dyson once put it, ideas like this might be most charitably be regarded as welfare programs for engineers and scientists.

    Are they telling themselves that if they're drones they won't need any shielding at all? And that they'll use remote manipulators to do cargo-handling and maintenance work?

    I don't have anything against research in molten-salt reactors though, and I guess if you need to say "drones" to sell a project, we might politely look the other way. (Why not motlen-salt mobile smart phones?)

    • They also wanted to hire pilots "past childbearing age", meaning men in their 40s/50s who already had kids.
  • by Applehu Akbar ( 2968043 ) on Saturday December 16, 2017 @04:52PM (#55752651)

    The SCMP article, being a typical simplified newspaper account, talks only about using molten salt as a reactor coolant. Salt is already used for heat transfer in many industrial processes, including solar thermal plants like Ivanpah, because of its high specific heat (heat absorption per unit mass) combined with its much higher boiling point than water. This would mean a more compact reactor that operates at ambient pressure.

    But this research is a lot more advanced than that. The designs being investigated use fuel dissolved in the coolant, with graphite rods as a moderator, the opposite arrangement from existing commercial designs. This allows a greater range of fuels, including thorium and spent fuel from current reactors. Some of the designs being investigated are breeders, producing fissile fuel from U-238 and thorium.

    China did not think of this design first; the US did, and ran a test reactor for years at ORNL. Now a science-friendly country will carry on where we left off.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

  • The point of running nuclear experiments in the Gobi desert is that leaks will not bug the neighborhood.
  • Humanity is definitively reaching the Civilization Bottleneck. Evolution based of natural selection inevitably produces a civilization of competing imperialistic entities, which in combination with advanced nuclear technology creates an "explosive" mixture.

    The civilization bottleneck theory explains The Great Silence, why there are no radio or TV signals from other stars. Every natural selection civilization self-destructs itself at a certain stage of political&military competition.

Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious animal on earth.

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