EUROPE: Nuclear research objectives agreed

A blueprint for the development of European nuclear energy research based on contributions from 200 industrial and academic professionals collected over the last 18 months have been approved by a group of nuclear power industry representatives.

The plan was accepted by the EU's Sustainable Nuclear Energy Technology Platform group at a recent European FISA 2009 nuclear fission conference in Prague. The event, attended by some 450 experts in nuclear research including many from outside the EU, was organised by the European Commission's directorate-general for research as "a showcase event for on-going research carried out within the Euratom Framework Programme".

SNETP was formed in 2007 to harmonise the goals of its members and is comprised of experts from European universities, research institutions, utilities, systems providers, regulatory bodies and safety organisations. It covers every aspect of research in the nuclear energy field including mining, fuel fabrication, fuel reprocessing, waste storage and 'recycling' (transmutation), reactor technologies, advanced fuels and research facilities, as well as safety requirements for operating reactors and ageing factors that affect existing reactors.

The 2009 conference took place against the background of EU targets to reduce greenhouse gases by 20% by 2020 from 1990 levels and focused on policies to maintain the competitiveness of nuclear energy while supplying long-term waste-management solutions, developing reactors with a closed fuel cycle (which burn up waste products), and building competence by promoting education and training while ensuring the availability of research infrastructures.

In its so-called "vision report", SNETP sets out three major objectives: maintaining the safety and competitiveness of today's technologies; developing a new generation of more sustainable reactor technologies; and developing new applications of nuclear power. These new applications will include the production of hydrogen (to which nuclear power is exceptionally suited) as well as desalination and industrial 'heat' applications such as the production of concrete or glass, the report said.

In its own paper, the European Commission said it was committed to supporting research that would provide answers to citizens' concerns regarding the use of nuclear energy in general, and to how the technology could provide safe, sustainable and competitive energy as part of a future low-carbon economy.

Research nowadays was focusing on the development of so-called fourth generation reactors, which should be commercially deployed in the next decades, Brussels said. Part of the plan was to "complete preparations for the demonstration of 'generation-IV' reactors for increased sustainability".

These reactors used fuel far more efficiently than existing reactors or those being currently built, and produced minimal waste as the most highly radiotoxic elements were 'burned up' in the reactors. Several types of the generation-IV reactors were on the drawing table at present and specific objectives were set out for work on four types of them.

But there was also a need to improve the performance and extend the lifetime of existing older generation-II and III power plants, the commission said. It described the SNETP's strategic research agenda as "a major achievement for the nuclear research community and marks the start of a more collaborative and integrated approach to research in this field in Europe, of which the Euratom [EU nuclear energy] programme is a part".