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Posted by Mark Halper

Sir John Beddington, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, has an idea that thorium and other alternative     nuclear technologies could be key to a low carbon future.

A key report by the UK government on the future of nuclear power will recommend a big increase in nuclear generating capacity by 2050, and will encourage the development of reactors that can burn waste and and breed fuel instead of leaving waste, the Weinberg Foundation has learned.

The “Nuclear Research and Development” report for 2050 and beyond, led by chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington in response to a query by the House of Lords, will come on the heels of scathing criticism today that the country’s nuclear waste maintenance operations operates over budget and has spent £67.5 billion ($106.4 billion).

The roadmap will lay out four possible low carbon energy scenarios for the country.

In three of the four, it will call for 75 gigawatts of nuclear output capability, a spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change told Weinberg in an email. (He did not describe the fourth scenario. See clarifications below).

That’s about 90 percent of the country’s current power capacity, of which nuclear currently comprises about 18 percent while fossil fuels dominate. In 2050, the total capacity will be higher, but 75 gigawatts should represent a significantly greater proportion than today’s 18 percent.

WELCOME ALTERNATIVES

To get there, the country should consider adding technologies other than conventional nuclear reactors that leave waste by burning uranium in large water-cooled reactors – the same fundamental approach that the global nuclear industry has used for 50-some years, the report will recommend.

Instead, reactors that “close” the fuel cycle – breed new fuel – will be key, the report will suggest, as will new fuel cycles based on thorium instead of uranium, which can also run in a “closed” cycle in a molten salt reactor. The report will also call for advances in conventional reactors, or “LWRs” (light water reactors).

The DECC spokesman shared the upcoming recommendations with Weinberg following our story late last week in which we noted that DECC’s chief scientific adviser David MacKay is taking an interest in thorium and in other alternative nuclear technologies, and that he and Beddington would soon publish a report that could encourage those technologies. John Perkins, the scientific adviser to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, is also co-authoring the report.

We asked DECC to elaborate. After we published Friday’s blog, the spokesman alerted us to the 75 gigawatt target.  He said the report’s findings to date note that:

“In order to potentially deliver against the upper end of this scope it is likely that more advanced and diverse options will need to be explored by the market. Such options may include: development of newer fission technologies such as evolutionary LWR’s, small modular reactors (SMRs) or Generation IV ; options for closing the uranium fuel cycle and reprocessing spent fuel; progressing the development of fusion; and consideration of alternative fuel cycles such as Thorium.

“Ensuring that these options are not foreclosed or essential skills lost will be an important long term objective and the R&D Roadmap element of the work will set out a number of pathways and key decision points for any future R&D programmes to consider.”

The DECC spokesman said that Beddington has shared a number of his recommendations with government ministers, and that the government expects to publish the roadmap “within the next few months.”

WASTE NOT

The timing of the pre-release of findings is fitting, given a separate report today that was highly critical of rising costs and delays at the U.K.’s nuclear waste storage facility, called Sellafield.  That assessment, by Parliament’s House of Commons, claimed that Sellafield’s storage, run privately for the government by a company called Nuclear Management Partners, spends £1.6 billion ($2.5 billion) and has ponied up a total of £67.5 billion  ($106.4 billion).

Sellafield has the world’s largest stash of plutonium with about 100 tons, and stores other waste including highly radioactive substances in vitrified glass blocks.

Some of that waste, like the plutonium, could be used in new style reactors. Alternative reactors would also minimize waste and thus greatly reduce the need for waste facilities like Sellafield.

In Britain’s privatized energy sector, scientific advisers like Beddington, MacKay and Perkins would be hoping that industry – the “market” as the pre-report says – would help fund development of the alternatives.

What’s not known is how much – if any – the government might provide for research and development.

Photo  from UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills, via Flickr, of  Sir John Beddington at the UK’s Big Bang Fair, a science gathering for young people.

Clarifications and correction: After this story appeared, DECC clarified that the report does not recommend “a big increase in nuclear generating capacity” per se, as stated in the opening paragraph. Rather, it recommends development of alternative nuclear if Britain is to meet the more more nuclear intensive of four low carbon energy scenarios set out in the government’s Dec. 2011 Carbon Plan aiming for 80 percent carbon reduction by 2050. Only one of those scenarios – not three as stated above –  envisages 75 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2050, which would represent 68 percent of projected total capacity. The other scenarios call for 28, 20 and 10 percent nuclear. 

Comments

  1. Steve Basnett says:

    The first ray of light from UK energy policy for quite a while. Common sense and long-term thinking should have dictated this kind of move much earlier, but it is nonetheless pleasing that this is at last being considered. Thank you for posting this most welcome news.

  2. Colin Megson says:

    “Some of that waste, like the plutonium, could be used in new style reactors. Alternative reactors would also minimize waste and thus greatly reduce the need for waste facilities like Sellafield.”

    You should have the strength of your convictions – that LFTRs will prove to be the ultimate nuclear energy source of choice – and mentioned the GE Hitachi PRISM reactor in the above comment.

    It can only do good for LFTR prospects in the UK, if we get involved in PRISM manufacture one or two decades ahead of anything practical which might happen here, on the MSR front. The expertise and manufacturing will be better placed for LFTRs, if PRISMs move in ahead of them.

  3. PrKing says:

    The report is little more than an admission that current nuke technology has failed. So now the nuke lobby desperately need taxpayer charity to fund their dream technology.

    Thorium: Back to the Dream Factory. http://www.ccnr.org/Thorium_Reactors.html

  4. james Longenberger says:

    Going Green All The Way

  5. Charles Booth says:

    There is an e-petition on the government website. It is aimed at getting a debate going in parliament. The debate may trigger research into Thorium reactors. It is all a bit wishy-washy,but at least it gets the idea into the news. What we really need is for some philanthropic industrialist to say ,”By 2020, I want to have the research done which will prove the financial viability of a liquid fluorine thorium reactor, and provided enough design data to enable a basic engineering design.”

    How do we get this going? The petition is at:-

    http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/32346

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