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Non-nuclear energy

Reactor systems

Fission and radiation protection

The safety and cost-effectiveness of existing and future nuclear power plants are major topics in the Seventh Euratom Framework Programme (Euratom FP7). Research is focusing on two aspects:

  • nuclear installation safety, in particular the continued safe operation of existing nuclear power installations
  • advanced nuclear systems, preparing the ground for a future generation of safe, competitive and more sustainable nuclear technology that can respond to global energy challenges.

Nuclear installation safety

Nuclear power plants are complex technological systems and research into their design and operational safety is multi-faceted. It involves tasks such as plant life assessment and management, safety culture to minimise the risk of human and organisational error, advanced safety assessment methodologies, numerical simulation tools, instrumentation and control, and prevention and mitigation of severe accidents, with associated activities to optimise knowledge management and maintain competence. By including safety as an integral part of basic research on new designs, the Euratom programme is ensuring that safety is built in rather than added on.

Advanced nuclear systems

Nuclear power technology has evolved in three distinct design generations: the initial prototype reactors; the second generation of reactors that forms the current park of operating power plants; and an evolutionary third generation of reactors with enhanced safety and competitiveness that is presently being built in Finland and France.

A fourth generation of reactors is now the focus of an intense research effort and should be available for initial commercial deployment from around 2025. The ‘generation-IV’ concepts are truly innovative and revolutionary. They will:

  • combine a high level of safety with competitive economics, with increased reliance on intrinsic and passive safety features and zero off-site impacts in severe accident scenarios
  • make best use of natural uranium resources and minimise waste production
  • enable cogeneration of electricity and heat for use in processes such as hydrogen production and other industrial applications.

Many of the fourth generation of reactors will operate with fast neutrons, enabling – through the development of appropriate closed fuel cycles (i.e. recycling) – the full energetic potential of uranium fuel to be harnessed, with 50–100 times more energy produced from a given quantity of uranium than in current reactors. In addition, since these reactors will be capable of burning (through nuclear transmutation) the radiotoxic elements that currently are present in nuclear waste, quantities and radiotoxicity of the ultimate waste will be significantly reduced. This will greatly facilitate the design and operation of geological disposal facilities. Importantly, the envisaged recycling steps ensure that at no stage during the fuel cycle weapon-grade nuclear material is produced, thereby significantly improving resistance to nuclear proliferation.

This new generation of reactors could be deployed by the mid-21st century and would significantly enhance the sustainability of nuclear energy.

R&D on generation-IV concepts is a global collaborative effort coordinated under the Generation IV International Forum (GIF). Six reactor systems have been selected that offer the greatest potential for the successful achievement of the generation-IV goals. These systems are:

  1. sodium-cooled fast reactor
  2. lead-cooled fast reactor
  3. gas-cooled fast reactor
  4. very-high-temperature reactor
  5. supercritical water-cooled reactor
  6. molten-salt reactor.

Euratom research is investigating aspects of these systems and the associated fuels, in particular to assess their potential and viability, proliferation resistance and long-term sustainability. Research in areas such as materials science, fuel cycles, innovative fuels and waste management are also generically applicable to generation IV.

Euratom is an active member of the GIF together with Canada, China, France, Japan, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland, and the USA. Euratom projects will provide a significant part of the EU’s overall contribution to the GIF.