According to an article in the Telegraph today, the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear and Applied Physics have 140 PhD scientists working full-time on an alternative to uranium for nuclear reactors (and that number will be increased to 750 in 2 years). Thorium was thoroughly investigated for this purpose in the US in the 1960s but uranium was favoured partly because it offered weapons-grade plutonium as a by-product.
The thorium reactor requires constant neutron bombardment: unlike uranium, there is no chain reaction. If you switch it off, it stops instantly, and it can’t melt down. Furthermore, the toxic residue is minimal and it can even “burn” old uranium residue, thereby cleaning up the mess left by the current nuclear power technology.
China’s motives are of course selfish (like any nation): they do not have enough power for their vast upwardly-mobile population, nor nearly enough uranium to fuel the nuclear plants that might deliver that power. But they have plenty of thorium (enough, they say, for 20,000 years). The technology that they are developing could benefit all of us in terms of fossil-fuel dependence, global warming, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.