Posts Tagged NNL

UK joins test reactor project in France with £12.5m commitment

Posted by Mark Halper on March 13th, 2013

Davey EmieFrenchAmbassador

Splitsville. UK Energy Secretary Ed Davey (r) and French Ambassador Bernard Emié at the London       signing of Britain’s £12.5 million commitment to the Jules Horowitz test reactor in France, where the two countries and others will test new techniques and materials for splitting atoms.

The research and development of alternative nuclear technologies received a boost yesterday when the UK committed £12. 5 million ($18.6 million) to join a group of nine other governments and three utilities in a French test reactor.

The Jules Horowitz Reactor (JHR), under construction in Cadarache, France (the same southern city where the ITER fusion tokamak is rising) is scheduled for completion by 2016, at a cost of €750 million ($972 million). The JHR website says that the reactor will support the development of  “different power reactor systems” including those based on “existing and future technologies.”

“It will have the potential to look at thorium fuels, fast reactors, novel fuel designs for SMRs (small modular reactors), etc.,” explained Adrian Bull, director of external relations at the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) in an email exchange.

NNL is the Sellafield, England-based privately run research lab owned by the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change. It is leading the UK’s involvement at JHR, where it joins government research groups from France, the Czech Republic, Japan, Spain, Belgium, India, Finland and Israel who were already active there.

The project also includes the European Commission, as well nuclear company Areva, French utility EDF, and Swedish utility Vattenfall.


“It’s vital that we cooperate on issues like safety and R&D,” said John Hayes, Minister of State for Energy at DECC, in a press release. “We are putting our money where our mouth is by confirming our contribution of £12.5m to the Jules Horowitz research reactor in France and guaranteeing the UK access rights to the project.”

NNL managing director Paul Howarth said the commitment to the JHR “is an important step towards returning the UK to the international ‘top table’ in the arena of civil nuclear R&D.”

The JHR will also supply hospitals with medical isotopes.

It is part of a fleet of six European Union “material test reactors” including the Halden Reactor in Norway, which will soon begin irradiating thorium fuel here, and which supplies heat to a nearby paper mill

JHR will replace the older Osiris Reactor, also in France. At 100 megawatts, it will be the largest of the European test reactors.  France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), a major backer at JHR, has also been involved in the others.


Also yesterday, the UK and 11 other EU nations in London announced a “Joint Ministerial Communique on Nuclear Energy in Europe” affirming collaboration on making nuclear “a part in the EU’s future low carbon energy mix.”

“It’s vital for our economy that we work with our European partners to make the EU a leading destination for investment in new low-carbon energy infrastructure,” said Ed Davey, the UK’s energy secretary (Hendry’s boss). “This communiqué signals a move to a stronger, better and closer working relationship between Member States on nuclear energy. By working together to enable low carbon energy projects to come forward we will go some way to reducing the EU’s carbon emissions and ensuring greater energy security.”

The 12 countries will hold their next ministerial meeting in the Czech Republic, a country where nuclear research includes a thorium-fueled molten salt reactor.

The 12 are the UK, France, the Czech Republic, Spain, Holland, Finland, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Lithuania.

Photo from UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, via Flickr

Laying firm foundations in 2012

Posted by Laurence O'Hagan on December 23rd, 2012

To a backdrop of unprecedented environmental and humanitarian disasters, the end of 2012 seems like a fitting milestone to reflect on some of the highlights of the Weinberg Foundation’s push for a safer, cleaner global energy future:

In February we established the world’s first cross-party group of legislators dedicated to thorium, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Thorium Energy. In its first year the APPG has hosted world-renowned scientists, authors, journalists and policy-makers, making it a focal point for political and scientific debate.

In September we organised a landmark trip with APPG members to the National Nuclear Laboratory at Sellafield; where we found fertile ground resulted in the NNL sending a delegate to Shanghai – the first time the organisation has attended a thorium and new reactor technology event.

 November saw our chairman John Durham and Baroness Worthington addressing the Thorium  Energy Conference 2012 in Shanghai. (Watch Baroness Worthington’s presentation here.) In establishing relations with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, we were privileged to get the inside  track on China’s much-discussed Thorium Molten Salt Reactor programme and a tour of the CAS MSR R&D facility. Watch Dr Jiang Mian Heng’s insightful presentation on MSRs and the future of sustainable energy in China.

Closing the year’s speaker platforms, Baroness Worthington gave a compelling case for new nuclear and thorium at the Nuclear Industry Association’s annual conference, and kicking off 2013 Laurence O’Hagan is to speak at the Conference on Molten Salts in Nuclear Technology in Mumbai

Much research, networking and intelligence gathering peppered the year, including a roundtable at the Cambridge Forum where academics, scientist and leading UK industry heads made real headway in understanding the benefits and challenges of a thorium-fuelled economy; we supported  the UK launch of Rick Martin’s SuperFuel and built a database of some 700 supporters (and sceptics!).

Thanks to the too-numerous-to-mention global influences who have worked with hope and energy to change minds in 2012 – there’s much work ahead of us and time is clearly of the essence.





Choice cuts: thorium not on the menu at NIA conference

Posted by Laurence O'Hagan on December 9th, 2012

Last week’s NIA Energy Choices conference clearly highlighted the fact that the old guard doesn’t see thorium as a ‘choice’ in preference to uranium – and the status quo  – despite the WNA’s recognition of the benefits of thorium, the organisation used the platform to support the vested interests.

Some more insightful speakers, such as CANDU, the NNL and others thankfully take the longer view.

See Mark Halper’s blog on the day’s proceedings:

Britain joins nuclear debate

Posted by Laurence O'Hagan on October 31st, 2012

The Times, 31 October 2012

A controversial nuclear conference is being attended by Britain’s National Nuclear Laboratory for the first time.

The government agency has sent Tim Tinsley, a technology expert, to the International Thorium Energy Organisation conference in China — a four-day meeting about a radioactive material whose advocates say could provide a clean, safe and plentiful source of nuclear power.

Thorium and molten salt reactors — which have a fluid core rather than solid fuel rods — were the subject of British and American research in the 1960s and 1970s. They were regarded as sustainable and less toxic than other nuclear technology, with the added advantage that it was impossible to use their spent fuel to build nuclear bombs. However, the research ground to a halt and was not revived until last year when China announced that it was building a molten salt reactor fuelled by thorium.

The Chinese Academy of Science is investing $350 million and employing 400 scientists in developing the technology — the most any country has spent on it. Baroness Worthington, a Labour peer who is attending the conference, told The Times that there had been a “flurry of interest” in thorium in Britain, perhaps in the worry that China would leave us behind.

Thorium is a chemical element which, unlike its nuclear rival uranium, is abundant.

This is the first sign that the National Nuclear Laboratory, which until recently was sceptical about thorium’s potential, is taking the idea seriously.

Prime Minister David Cameron addressing an international summit of energy secretaries in London earlier this year. That’s UK Dept. of Energy (DECC) boss Ed Davey next to him, followed by U.S.chief Steven Chu and DECC minister Greg Barker. Thorium is slowly entering DECC’s clean energy radar.

Welcome again to the Weinberg Foundation blog, aka The Thorium Trail, where as we announced here yesterday, we will provide a steady stream of updates on the future of energy: Safe, peaceful nuclear power that cuts the CO2 cord and eases climate change. We will trot the globe looking at developments in thorium fuel, molten salt reactors and many other alternative nuclear technologies that are safer and more efficient than the uranium, water-cooled designs that have defined the industry for half a century.

Our first full post comes from the UK, where earlier this month the government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change published a curious report on thorium – a fuel that did not, at first glance, seem to impress DECC as a promising replacement for uranium.

A quick read of DECC’s Comparison of thorium and uranium fuel cycles looks almost dismissive.

“Thorium has theoretical advantages regarding sustainability, reducing radiotoxicity and reducing proliferation risk,” the executive summary states. “While there is some justification for these benefits, they are often over stated.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the fuel that could minimize long lived dangerous waste, mitigate weapons proliferation, eliminate meltdowns, and run more economically than today’s uranium reactors.

The muted assessment, prepared for DECC by the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) – a privately run vestige of the defunct uranium stalwart British Nuclear Fuels Limited – notes that “the thorium fuel cycle at best has only limited relevance to the UK.” It concludes that the claim that thorium is inherently safer than uranium  “is not sufficiently substantiated and will not be for many years, if at all.”



But here’s the curious bit: We know here at the Weinberg Foundation that NNL is indeed more open to thorium than its conclusions suggest. We recently visited NNL at their headquarters in Sellafield, England, where they were clearly interested in learning more about thorium technologies, such as those under development in China including a molten salt thorium project.

And as we read beyond the report’s headline coolness, we spot plenty of encouragement. While downplaying thorium, the summary points out that “Nevertheless, it, is important to recognise that world-wide there remains interest in thorium fuel cycles and as this is not likely to diminish in the near future. It may therefore be judicious for the UK to maintain a low level of engagement in thorium fuel cycle R&D by involvement in international collaborative research activities.”

Judicious indeed!  Because as DECC/NNL itself spells out, thorium, while having “limited relevance,” also proffers many advantages over uranium.For instance, the report says thorium can operate more efficiently than uranium. “The thorium fuel cycle is in principle capable of achieving higher conversion ratios in thermal reactors than uranium fuel, which is advantageous for resource availability,” it states, adding that thorium “converts” into fissile material at nearly twice the rate that occurs in the uranium process.

Out with the old, in with the thorium? With Cameron’s government struggling to find backers to replace reactors such as this relic at Oldbury-on-Severn, now’s a good time to consider alternatives like thorium.


It notes that thorium leaves behind much less nasty waste, pointing out that it “generates only trace quantities of plutonium and higher actinides, which can reduce the long term radiotoxicity of spent nuclear fuel.”


DECC even begins to describe how difficult it can be to fabricate a bomb from the thorium fuel cycle, thus giving credence to claims by thorium supporters who say that thorium can eliminate the weapons proliferation risk. DECC notes that the thorium process includes traces of uranium 232, a substance so full of gamma ray emissions that no terrorist would survive contact with it in the first place.

Certain alternative reactor designs would draw out these advantages more than conventional water-cooled nuclear plants. DECC is particularly keen on very high temperature gas reactors (VHTRs), which tend to be gas-cooled. It also notes that thorium fuel could mix with plutonium and help the UK dispose of its troublesome stash of that deadly stuff.

So how is it that despite acknowledging all these benefits, DECC concludes that the thorium case is generally “overstated” and of limited relevance to the UK?

In part, by issuing a few specific refutations. For instance, on proliferation, DECC says that an intrepid bomb maker can circumvent the deadly U232. It concludes that the justification for thorium reducing proliferation risks “is not very strong.” (Of all the claims for thorium’s advantages, the proliferation argument is perhaps the most debated, and we welcome your comments and feedback on this or any other aspect).


But each time we read through the report, it strikes us that the main impediment to tapping thorium’s potential is, as DECC sees it, economics – the lack of funding to advance thorium development into a commercial state.

Or to put it another way, the entrenched British (read Western) nuclear industry – the half a century year-old uranium value chain – will not make the necessary investments to migrate to a superior technology when iterative improvements on conventional reactors will suffice.

That’s the sort of ossified thinking that got Big Media and Telecom in trouble as the Googles and Skypes came along.

To be clear, DECC did not exactly phrase it that way.  “While economic benefits are theoretically achievable by using thorium fuels … in current market conditions the position is marginal and insufficient to justify major investment by utilities,” it says.

“The thorium fuel cycle is disadvantaged because all the supporting infrastructure would have to be established from scratch,” it adds. “Furthermore, since the energy market is driven by private investment and with none of the utility companies investing or currently developing either thorium fuels or thorium fuelled reactor concepts, it is clear that there is little appetite or belief in the safety or performance claim.”


Meanwhile, China has no such investment reluctance. It has a bevy of alternative nuclear research projects underway, including several thorium initiatives. In one, the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics has committed 400 experts and $350 million to building a small test thorium molten salt reactor by 2017 (we’ll bring you more about this in another post soon).

The DECC report can be read as an endorsement of thorium, but as a carefully worded, reluctant one in the face of a dominant uranium industry and in light of the government’s efforts to rescue plans to build new reactors with money from the uranium industry.

It’s no wonder then that DECC recommends at least “a low level of engagement” with international thorium efforts. “This will enable the UK to keep up with developments, comment from a position of knowledge and to some extent influence the direction of research. Participation will also ensure that the UK is more ready to respond if changes in technology or market forces bring the thorium fuel cycle more to the fore,” it says.

Or as someone recently commented,  it might also leave the country in a position to one day – soon even –  have to license thorium technology from the East.

Photos: Cameron et al, from DECC. Oldbury nuclear plant from David Bowd-Exworth via Wikimedia Commons.

Note: An earlier version of this story referred to NNL as “privatized.” NNL is “privately managed” by Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute, services firm Serco and the University of Manchester. The UK government owns it.

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