UK scientists call for global nuclear renaissance

UK scientists have outlined a 20-year master plan for the global renaissance of nuclear energy.

Updated: Aug 17, 2010, 17:42 PM IST

London: British scientists have outlined
a 20-year master plan for the global renaissance of nuclear
energy, which they say will fill an energy gap as old nuclear,
gas and coal fired plants are decommissioned.

In research published in the latest issue of the
journal Science, the scientists from University of Cambridge
and Imperial College London, suggest a two-stage plan in their
review paper that could see countries with existing nuclear
infrastructure replacing or extending the life of nuclear
power stations, followed by a second phase of global expansion
in the industry by the year 2030.

The team say their roadmap could fill an energy gap as
old nuclear, gas and coal fired plants around the world are
decommissioned, while helping to reduce the planet`s
dependency on fossil fuels.
The researchers suggest in their study that based on
how technologies are developing, new types of reactors could
come online that are much more efficient than current reactors
by 2030, a university release said.

At the moment, most countries have light water
reactors, which only use a small percentage of the uranium for
energy, which means that the uranium is used inefficiently.

The team suggest that new `fast reactors` could be
developed that could use uranium approximately 15 times more
efficiently, which would mean that uranium supplies could last
longer, ensuring energy security for countries.

Another idea is to develop reactors with replaceable
parts so that they can last in excess of 70 years, compared to
40 or 50 years that plants can currently operate at.

Reactors are subjected to harsh conditions including
extreme radiation and temperatures, meaning that parts degrade
over time, affecting the life of the reactor.

Making replaceable parts for reactors would make them
more cost effective and safe to run over longer periods of
time.

Flexible nuclear technologies could be an option for
countries that do not have an established nuclear industry,
suggest the scientists.

One idea involves ship-borne civil power plants that
could be moored offshore, generating electricity for nearby
towns and cities.

This could reduce the need for countries to build
large electricity grid infrastructures, making it more cost
effective for governments to introduce a nuclear industry from
scratch.

The researchers also suggest building small, modular
reactors that never require refuelling.

These could be delivered to countries as sealed units,
generating power for approximately 40 years.

At the end of its life, the reactor would be returned
to the manufacturer for decommissioning and disposal.
Because fuel handling is avoided at the point of
electricity generation, the team say radiation doses to
workers would be reduced, and plants would be safer.

Scientists believe roll out of flexible technologies
that could be returned to the manufacturer at their end of
their shelf life could also play an important role in
preventing proliferation of nuclear armaments, because only
the country of origin would have access to spent fuel, meaning
other countries could not reprocess fuel for use in weapons.

In the immediate future, the researchers suggest the
first stage of the renaissance will see countries with
existing nuclear energy infrastructure extending the life of
current nuclear power plants.

The researchers suggest this could be made possible by
further developing technologies for monitoring reactors,
enabling them to last longer because engineers can continually
assess the safety and performance of the power plants.

They say new global strategies for dealing with spent
fuel and radioactive components will have to be devised.

One suggestion is to develop regional centres, where
countries can send their waste for reprocessing, creating new
industries in the process.

Prof Robin Grimes, from Department of Materials at
Imperial College London, says: "Imagine portable nuclear power
plants at the end of their working lives that can be safely
shipped back by to the manufacturer for recycling, eliminating
the need for countries to deal with radioactive waste".

"Concerns about climate change, energy security and
depleting fossil fuel reserves have spurred a revival of
interest in nuclear power and our research sets out a strategy
for growing the industry long-term, while processing and
transporting nuclear waste in a safe and responsible way".

Professor Grimes adds: "In the past, there has been
the perception in the community that nuclear technology has
not been safe. However, what most people don`t appreciate is
just how much emphasis the nuclear industry places on safety.
"With continual improvements to reactor design,
nuclear energy will further cement its position as an
important part of our energy supply in the future," he said.

However, the authors caution that governments around
the world need to invest more in training the next generation
of nuclear engineers.

Otherwise, the nuclear industry may not have enough
qualified personnel to make the renaissance a reality.

Dr William Nuttall, University Senior Lecturer in
Technology Policy at Cambridge Judge Business School, said:
"As such small research capacities can become confused with
multi-billion dollar plans and stall as a result. Relatively
modest research and development can, however, provide us with
important options for the future".

"Such research and development capacities need to be
developed now if they are to be ready when needed. While some
good measures are already underway, the possible challenge
ahead motivates even greater efforts".

PTI