Building New Nuclear: the challenges ahead - Energy and Climate Change Contents


6  New technologies

104.  While the primary focus of our inquiry was to look at nuclear new build in the short- to medium-term using existing technologies, we also received some evidence explaining how new types of nuclear technology might also contribute to the UK's energy security and low-carbon objectives in the longer-term. While we have not been able to examine the potential for these technologies in any detail, we provide here a brief overview of three such proposals.

Thorium

105.  Thorium is a heavy metal that could be substituted for uranium as a fuel for nuclear fission. It has several advantages over uranium including that it is more abundant and that the spent fuel would be more difficult to use for a nuclear weapon.[144] Thorium could be used in new reactor designs, including pebble-bed reactors (see below) and the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). The Weinberg Foundation (a not-for-profit organisation set up to promote thorium-fuelled molten salt reactors) argued that LFTRs were more efficient, generated only small amounts of waste and were less costly to construct than current reactor designs.[145] So-called "Generation IV" reactors, such as the LFTR, are expected to become available beyond 2030.[146] Although other countries, including China and India, are investing in research into Thorium, research funding for fission has fallen in the UK.[147]

Pebble bed reactors

106.  Pebble bed reactors are smaller than conventional nuclear reactors. For example, a prototype, developed in South Africa, was for a 160MW reactor (this compares with the EPR reactor design that will be used at Hinkley C, which is approximately 1.5GW in size).[148] One advantage of smaller reactors is that they cost less in total to build and therefore may not face such significant barriers to raising finance as traditional reactors (see chapter 3).[149] Smaller reactors may also open up the potential for local stakeholding in nuclear power stations, which could help to overcome some of the issues with public acceptability (see chapter 4). Another advantage is that they may be able to flex their output more easily than conventional reactors.[150]

107.  Representatives from engineering institutions told us that it was unlikely that this type of reactor could make a contribution to the UK energy mix until the mid-2030s or 2040s.[151]

Fast reactors

108.  Fast reactors use fuel more efficiently and can also be used to change nuclear waste into a less hazardous form. They run at higher temperatures and use liquid metal or gas coolants. The UK operated two prototypes at Dounreay between 1959 and 1994.[152]

109.  GE Hitachi told us about its Power Reactor Innovative Small Modular (PRISM) reactor, which could be used to reduce the UK's plutonium stockpile, while generating electricity at the same time. However, this technology is not yet commercialised.[153]


144   Future nuclear technologies, Postnote 317, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, November 2008 Back

145   Ev w28, Ev w83 Back

146   Future nuclear technologies, Postnote 317, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, November 2008 Back

147   Ev w28, Ev w83 Back

148   Q 191 Back

149   Ev w11 Back

150   Q 189 Back

151   Q 185 Back

152   Future nuclear technologies, Postnote 317, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, November 2008 Back

153   Ev w16 Back


 
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Prepared 4 March 2013