Research into a new generation of nuclear power plants is being conducted in the form of irradiation studies. By the middle of the 21st century cheaper and environmentally friendlier form of atomic energy may be available, being even safer than today’s technologies.
Uranium decays five metres below the ground in the nuclear core of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre reactor. The High Flux Reactor in Petten, Netherlands, produces 45 megawatts of power. The process producing this power is the chain reaction called nuclear fission – harnessing the energy released by atoms as they split into smaller atoms. In nuclear power plants fission is used to create electricity; here in Petten the nuclear fission is used for scientific studies.
The reactor was built in the 1960s and is one of the first generations of research reactors. Extending from the reactor are tubes, about 5-6 metres long, containing all the experimental instrumentation. Specimens of various materials are placed within the reactor core and left to degrade for a specific length of time. Afterwards the irradiated specimens are transferred to so-called “hot cells” outside of the reactor, where they are studied and their damage evaluated. The purpose of these studies is to find the optimal composites to be used as building materials for future nuclear reactors.
There are plans to extend the lifespan of current nuclear facilities in Europe, which would buy another 10-20 years. Another plan is to replace the old facilities with new advanced ones. The first prototype of the Generation IV nuclear facility system is due in 2020, with commercial operation following in 2040. Several new technologies have been selected for further research, all offering considerable improvements to previous generations. The safety systems are more passive, relying less of human skill in dangerous situations. The system also uses the resources more efficiently, resulting in less nuclear waste. There are limited reserves of natural uranium and the current nuclear reactors use but a small fraction of the uranium, most of it becoming waste. Fourth generation reactors should be able to recycle the fuel (i.e. uranium) until it is fully exhausted. Such a reactor would produce electricity hundreds or even thousands of times more effectively.
The reactors of the future could be twice as hot as today. So another idea for increased efficiency is to use the excess heat to power secondary applications. Such applications may include hydrogen fuel production by thermolysis, desalination of seawater or melting and extraction of semi-solid oil in bitumen sands.
By 2014, scientists in European nuclear research will have a new research reactor in Cadarache, France. The experimental reactor is named after Jules Horowitz, the pioneer of reactor physics at CEA (the French Atomic Energy Commission). The Jules Horowitz reactor will replace the existing – sometimes 40-year-old – European reactors and become the heart of the Generation III and Generation IV nuclear facilities. The reactor core is relatively small, 60 cm in height and 60 cm in diameter, resembling a household washing machine. It will, however, accommodate around 20 experiments simultaneously. The power production of the reactor is an ambitious 100 megawatts. This reactor offers the chance to investigate some physical phenomenon, which can not be done with conventional power plant reactors.
With the continuing rise in energy demands, today's nuclear research could lead to the technology for a nuclear industry that is sustainable, competitive and even safer than today’s.