Nuclear energy: innovation and sustainability

Interview nuclear physics expert Prof. Bent Lauritzen

“Nuclear energy will play a decisive role in a transition to a low carbon European economy”, says nuclear physics expert Bent Lauritzen of the Technical University of Denmark. However, “continued research and development in nuclear energy provision will be decisive if the European nuclear industry is to regain global leadership.”

Professor Bent Lauritzen will be the keynote speaker at the workshop of the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) entitled ‘Sustainability and innovative technology for nuclear energy‘ (Wednesday 8 February 2023).

Could you give a brief summary of what innovations in nuclear energy are in the pipeline?

Bent Lauritzen profileBent Lauritzen: On a short timescale, with respect to market penetration and a high chance of success, the main innovations are small modular reactors (SMRs) based on light-water reactor (LWR) technology [the most common current type of reactor that uses normal water, as opposed to heavy water, ed.], with a focus on simplified designs and modular manufacturing.

SMRs are based on a new concept: an advanced nuclear reactor with a power capacity of up to 300 megawatt per unit, which is about one-third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors. They are small – physically a fraction of the size of a conventional nuclear power reactor, and they are modular – making it possible for systems and components to be factory-assembled and transported as a unit to a location for installation.

The advantage of SMRs is that they can be sited on locations not suitable for larger nuclear power plants, and their prefabricated units can be manufactured and then shipped and installed on site, making them more affordable to build than large power reactors, which are often custom designed for a particular location, sometimes leading to construction delays. So SMRs offer savings in cost and construction time, and they can be deployed incrementally to match increasing energy demand.

We also may see “Generation four (GEN-IV) reactors” turn up on a longer time scale; these all operate at higher temperatures, which opens up the possibility of using nuclear energy also for applications other than electricity generation, in particular process heat for the industry and Power-to-X (P2X) applications that use surplus electric power.

The most recent reactors that have been built – or are still being built – in Europe already brought some innovations over previous designs. However, it seems that their construction have seen considerable cost and time overruns. Will new technology help with this problem, or does it risk making it worse? Could these mini-power plants, or SMRs as you call them, be a solution?

Bent Lauritzen: The modular approach to construction for SMRs, or even for large nuclear power plant units, seems an attractive way forward. One main challenge today is the lack of widely distributed competencies in building nuclear power plants. This is not likely to change on a short time scale (in Europe), unless a substantial effort is taken to address this problem.

New technology brought forward by start-ups or by companies with little experience in large industrial construction projects or working with nuclear regulatory bodies will increase the risk of delays; even for technologies with high technology readiness levels.

For nuclear energy to continue to be considered a feasible and realistic option for today’s energy problem, is the technology of current reactors enough, or do we need new innovation?

Bent Lauritzen: Current technology is in principle sufficient to address urgent energy security needs, but large-scale deployment of Generation III reactors is realistic only to the extent that the industry can demonstrate that it can build on schedule and on budget.

As mentioned, modular construction, either for SMRs or even for large power units (e.g. the AP1000 nuclear power plant) may be the means for cutting both costs and construction time. SMR units that are easier to finance would be an attractive option for the utilities [electricity providers, ed.].

Light-water reactors have a clear advantage over the GEN-IV alternatives, because a framework for licensing already exists, as well as the infrastructure for providing fuel, maintenance and training.

On a longer timescale, both GEN-IV alternatives and fusion technology could be an option; however significant R&D work is still required, e.g. on developing new structural materials for a high-temperature and often corrosive environment. For these alternatives, new fuel cycles should also be established including reprocessing and waste management.

How big of a role can innovative technology for nuclear energy play in reaching the target of net zero CO2 emissions?

Bent Lauritzen: The approach to net zero CO2 emissions relies on the expansion of nuclear energy and other low-CO2 energy sources.  Innovation in nuclear could lead to:

  1. smaller grids: SMR’s would be applicable to smaller communities, industry and electrical grids, that are not suited for larger power units;
  2. more flexible operation, to balance varying load and/or generation from weather-dependent energy sources;
  3. use for district heating or combined heat and power generation, and;
  4. for high-temperature reactors, providing process heat for industry and hydrogen production.

All of this will contribute, maybe crucially, to having net-zero emissions in the future.

One of the biggest problems of nuclear energy is the negative perception many people have of it. To what extent can innovative technology help with that? What about nuclear waste?

Bent Lauritzen: This is tricky. To some degree, innovative technologies might spur a wider public acceptance of nuclear power, more willing to accept the claimed benefits with respect to safety, sustainability or economics of nuclear associated with these new technologies.

However, nuclear is already today a sustainable option, as deemed by the European Joint Research Centre amongst others, being far better than its fossil-based alternative, and the question remains, why would new technology in itself lead to a change in public perception?

What would be any other advantages and/or challenges of innovative nuclear technologies?

Bent Lauritzen: To the advantages and challenges already mentioned, it is important to add that innovation at university level and collaboration between private industry

What role should Europe play, if we want to take advantage of innovative nuclear technology?

Bent Lauritzen: Innovation in the nuclear sector in Europe is essential for regaining leadership in the nuclear industry and a secure energy sector; the development of innovative reactor designs will increase our energy independence, and at the same time offer European industry a competitive edge.

To promote the construction of new reactors, European countries should provide a level playing ground for all low-CO2 technologies, by giving value to dispatchable energy sources, and by internalising system costs that arise from the use of variable renewable energy sources. The often costly and lengthy licensing process is likely a barrier for smaller start-ups; this could be eased by giving more rapidly approval to existing licensed reactor designs.

Europe should support continued R&D in thermonuclear fusion, so that Europe can maintain its global leadership in this field. To promote GEN-IV research, coordinated European research might benefit from concentrating efforts on a few GEN-IV concepts, rather than spreading effort and funding over too many diverse projects.

Prof. Bent Lauritzen‘s research area is radiation physics. He is trained in theoretical nuclear physics and currently his main interest is neutronics and reactor physics.

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