Despite the rough patch that the nuclear industry has experienced in recent years, its future remains bright, the industry insists. That is because the next generation of nuclear reactors will provide significant safety and economic benefits over current reactors.
But what if the new designs are actually not all that much better than the current fleet?
That is the provocative conclusion that France’s nuclear watchdog came to in a new report. Published on April 27, the IRSN said that the so-called “generation IV” reactors of the future may not be able to offer major upgrades in safety (most of the reactors running today are generation II – built in the 1960’s and 1970’s – and the newer designs that are currently under construction today are considered to be generation III). Related: Tesla Could Be Changing The Dynamics Of Global Energy
The IRSN report reviewed six of the most promising generation IV reactor designs: sodium-cooled fast reactors (SFR); very high-temperature reactors (VHTR); gas-cooled fast reactors (GFR); lead-cooled fast reactors (LFR); molten salt reactors (MSR); and SuperCritical water reactors (SCWR).
Out of all of those, ISRN found that only the sodium-cooled fast reactor is close enough to maturity. SFRs have been trumpeted as an exciting concept – they can burn nuclear waste, reducing the need to build long-term spent fuel storage. Related: Health Risks From Fukushima Disaster Greatly Exaggerated
But after looking into the technology ISRN says it’s hard to say whether or not SFRs would be better. “While it seems possible for SFR technology to guarantee a safety level at least equivalent” to generation III reactors, “IRSN is unable to determine whether it could significantly exceed this level,” the report concluded. That is because liquid sodium can explode if exposed to water. IRSN also questioned the extent to which SFRs could actually burn through dangerous nuclear waste. Related: Russia To Power Arctic Drilling With Floating Nuclear Reactors
The report amounts to a big rebuke for generation IV reactors, the first significant criticism of a nuclear dream that has been hailed as the key to solving energy and climate change challenges.
However, ISRN also ultimately said that the devil will be in the details. The reactor designs could solve some of their drawbacks as the specifics are fleshed out. But unless generation IV designs can prove to be much safer than generation III designs, the nuclear renaissance may not be as bright as many had hoped.
By Charles Kennedy of Oilprice.com
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