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Tomorrow’s nuclear energy plants will use today’s nuclear waste

2010-10-15

The image shows a schematic drawing of a lead-cooled fast reactor, that is, the type of reactor that the Swedish Generation IV program works with. Image from Generation IV International Forum.

In the future we may have an entirely new type of nuclear power, with reactors that are easy to situate and durable, and that can use nuclear waste as fuel. These are so-called generation IV reactors that scientists at Uppsala University are developing together with colleagues in a national program.

“The new reactors don’t have much in common with today’s reactor technology. Instead, they are being developed on the basis of a concept where fuel recycling, fuel production, and reactor operations are seen in a systems perspective,” says Ane Håkansson, professor of applied nuclear physics and director of Uppsala’s part of the national program that is being run together with the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm and Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg.

The advantages of the new reactors are numerous. In the new kind of nuclear reactor, the fuel is used a hundred times better than with today’s technology, which leads to a dizzying durability of tens of thousands of years.

“This renders the issue of access to fuel becomes virtually irrelevant. What’s more the uranium can be used directly, without enrichment,” explains Ane Håkansson.

The size of the reactors will be flexible. It will be possible to build everything from large facilities of a few thousand megawatts to small so-called nuclear batteries of 50-100 megawatts. The small reactors will be relatively easy to situate and require very little maintenance.

“There is a huge global need for energy, and the small reactors can be placed in areas that are not regarded as suitable for nuclear power but where the energy needs are growing rapidly,” says Ane Håkansson.

He points out that there is a humanitarian aspect to this technology. Nearly two billion people have no access to potable water at the same time as the desalination of sea water requires massive amounts of energy. 

“This is where the new nuclear power technology can play a major role.”

By about 2020-2025 the researchers estimate they will have a demonstration facility in operation somewhere in Europe. The main reason for such a facility is to make sure the technology works as planned. The first commercial facilities won’t appear until about 2040-2050, Ane Håkansson estimates.

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Nuclear power