Posts Tagged research

Leaving Euratom: the government should reconsider

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on January 27th, 2017

It has been confirmed that the UK intends to leave the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) as part of the Brexit process. Following their loss in the Supreme Court last week, the government has produced a bill on triggering Article 50 to put to a commons vote. As part of the explanatory notes of this very short bill, was the revelation that Britian will be leaving both the EU and Euratom. Euratom, a separate legal entity to the EU but governed by EU institutions, has controlled nuclear power in Europe since 1957.

The move has been met with shock by the industry, with Dr Paul Dorfman, honorary senior researcher at the Energy Institute at University College London, calling it a “lose-lose situation” due to the potential for reduced competitiveness and reduced safety. There will be increased pressure on the already under-resourced Office for Nuclear Regulation to cover all of Euratom’s responsibilities including non-proliferation inspections, authorizing the sale of nuclear material and safeguarding power, fuel fabrication and waste sites. Alternatively the UK would need to negotiate with the International Atomic Energy Agency for help with this new burden. The decision will likely impact the UK’s plans for new power stations, research, skills development and dealing with the waste legacy.

The decision will also likely mean the eventual loss of the world leading Fusion experiment based in Culham, Oxfordshire, involving 350 scientists and funding from 40 countries, to another country such as Germany or France. This loss could risk perpetrating across the nuclear research space, with the isolation from Euratom making the UK far less attractive for research and innovation leading to a funding and brain drain at the very time the UK is trying to reinvigorate its nuclear leadership through it’s Industrial Strategy.

A complex set of negotiations will now have to take place as most nuclear co-operation with the UK relies on safeguards provided through Euratom. It may not be possible to agree and ratify new agreements before Britain leaves the EU in 2019. According to Vince Zabielski, a senior lawyer at law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, “current new build projects will be placed on hold while those standalone treaties are negotiated” meaning possible delays at Hinkley as well as Bradwell, Moorside and Wylfa.

The decision however is not just bad for the UK, but for nuclear as a whole. With the UK one of the last big supporters of the technology, weakening its strength in the field will give power to anti-nuclear camps across the continent.

Weinberg Next Nuclear is very concerned that the departure from Euratom could severely damage the UK’s nuclear industry, with impacts on energy security, industrial competitiveness and decarbonisation objectives. We find no reason why such drastic action needs to be taken. Article 50 deals with the two Treaties of Lisbon: the Treaty on the European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. However the Euratom treaty is separate, not mentioned in either of the above treaties thus there is no reason for including Euratom in any part of Article 50 debate. As Jonathan Leech, a senior lawyer and nuclear expert at Prospect Law said, “there doesn’t seem to have been any real explanation as to why, because we are going towards the unknown at great speed. Legally we don’t have to [leave Euratom because the UK is leaving the EU],”.

Weinberg Next Nuclear thus urges the government to reconsider and avoid the highly damaging consequences this unnecessary withdrawal could have on the UK’s nuclear future.

Weinberg Next Nuclear welcomes UK nuclear funding

Posted by John Lindberg on November 10th, 2016

On November 3rd the UK Government announced further funding plans for advanced nuclear research in the UK – part of the £250m over 5 years promised by previous Chancellor George Osborne. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy promised £20 million for an initial phase of a new nuclear research and innovation programme. The priority areas of research were recommended by the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board (NIRAB) and cover advanced fuels, materials and manufacturing (including modularisation), advanced recycling for waste and a strategic toolkit compromising models and data that can provide evidence for nuclear policy making.

We agree with Dame Sue Ion, Chair of NIRAB, who said “The research will […] plug gaps in UK current activity [and] begin to equip our universities, national labs and industry with world leading skills and capability and act as a stimulus for national and international collaborative working”.

The increase in materials research is very welcomed as it will play an essential part in ensuring a nuclear renaissance. This is especially the case because future nuclear energy should and probably will move away from conventional (thermal) reactors towards different fast-spectrum reactors. In order to facilitate this, materials research will be important, because these reactors will operate in very different, high-neutron, environments.

The UK is well placed for nuclear materials research. Last year the UK Atomic Energy Authority opened the Materials Research Facility as a part of the wider National Nuclear User Facility (NNUF). This new facility is an important step in gearing up research into advanced materials essential for advanced nuclear technologies. NNUF is part of the UK Government’s Nuclear Industrial Strategy which seeks to provide greater accessibility to world leading nuclear technologies held by four nuclear centres around the UK. Increased materials funding also provides a good opportunity for the nuclear fission and fusion communities to further collaborate, something that we would regard as highly desirable.

Identifying and then implemented sustainable waste management practices is also essential. Waste is one of the main concerns of the general public. The risks of nuclear waste are often exaggerated, but it does need to be managed responsibly. £2 million of the funding announced is designated towards waste management. However, it seems that the UK Government is falling short of the innovative spirit it is seeking to reinvigorate. The funding released is conditioned, aiming to refine current reprocessing techniques (aqueous), rather than broadening its scope to include pyroprocessing and other, non-conventional approaches. (Early next year Weinberg Next Nuclear will publish a research report on nuclear waste management, outlining the need for a break with the status quo.)

The government is proposing research into different aspects of nuclear fuel. This is integral to the potential success of advanced nuclear energy. We very much welcome research into using plutonium as a fuel, since the UK has the largest stockpile of civil plutonium in the world. A broad approach is necessary, however due to waste management issues, we remain unconvinced about the suitability of coated particle fuels. It is also noteworthy that there is no reference to molten salts or metallic fuels, both widely used in cutting-edge nuclear reactors. This is regrettable and we hope that the UK Government in a near future will dedicate funding for further nuclear fuel research.

Whilst being a an important step in the right direction, this should only be first of many steps in the long journey that would see the UK re-emerging as a leading nuclear innovator. What we need is an ambitious research programme into a wide range of different technologies, especially those that has been deemed viable by the Generation IV Forum.

For further information about the funding, see here.

From steam engines to nuclear power: innovation for a better future.

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on February 9th, 2016

Weinberg Next Nuclear are excited to again publish a guest blog by John Laurie of Energie du thorium. Have a look at their website for more information and a french perspective on nuclear.


Watch out! Trick question:

Who invented the steam engine?


Give up?

They all made major contributions. Such is the nature of technological development – each inventor stands on the shoulders of the giants that have preceded them.

The history of human development is closely linked to the cost of energy. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers needed a large land area per person to survive. A much larger population of humans was possible with the invention of agriculture, and then by replacing human mechanical energy with that of animals. But at the end of the middle ages, Europe was faced with the ecological catastrophe of deforestation. People started to obtain thermal energy from coal, but the reserves available close to the surface were soon used up.

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen combined the ideas of Denis Papin and Thomas Savery to invent the first commercial steam engine for pumping water out of mines, allowing deeper mining operations.


With this heat engine, humans were finally able to convert thermal energy into mechanical energy, marking the start of the industrial revolution.


The cost of energy from a heat engine is made up of

– The capital cost of the machine

– The cost of the fuel for the heat source

– Operating costs

Newcomen’s engine could convert only 1.3% of the coal’s energy into mechanical energy. With such poor efficiency fuel costs were extortionate, but it took another 58 years until the invention of James Watt to improve things.


Watt’s genius was to realise that the Newcomen engine wasted almost three quarters of the energy in the steam through heating the piston and cylinder. With a separate condensation chamber, efficiency was more than doubled. As the cost of the machine was similar, the energy produced was much cheaper.

Watt partnered with Matthew Boulton, and their company “Boulton & Watt” derived most of their profits from charging a licence fee to the engine owners, based on the cost of the fuel they saved.

Had you thought that James Watt invented the steam engine?


(Source: “Dynamics of Technological Change”, L.A. Girifalco, p.484)

The history of the industrial revolution is a race for ever greater heat engine efficiencies. It’s true that Watt made a major contribution, but the democratisation of the cost of energy which makes modern life possible was the work of many inventors and engineers.

Newcomen’s engine, used only in mining, was rapidly replaced by Watt’s. With energy costs reducing thanks to continuous improvement at Boulton & Watt, their machine soon also replaced wind energy from windmills and hydraulic energy from water-wheels, becoming more and more useful.

It is remarkable in the graph above to note that it took 200 years to go from an efficiency of 1.3% to the 20% efficiency of Charles Parsons’ first steam turbine. We should never underestimate the difficulty of technological change – often the technologies needed to manufacture a profitable machine progress slower than the theories and ideas of inventors.

Today’s combined cycle gas turbine power plants attain efficiencies of over 61%, but in recent times steam engines have been improved in a different way, by changing the heat source.


A large steam engine currently under construction at Flamanville

Uranium and thorium nuclear fuels have an energy density around 1 million times greater than fossil fuels, but the machines required to extract this energy are much more complicated than steam engine boilers. Nuclear energy has very different economics, with minimal fuel costs and the majority of cost coming from the capital invested in the machine.

In 2016 humanity is facing a global warming crisis. Renewable and nuclear low carbon energies are making progress, but energy from fossil fuels is progressing faster because it is cheaper. The history of the steam engine shows us that human prosperity improves when the cost of energy reduces. The greatest challenge of the 21st century is to provide each human with a decent level of prosperity and to simultaneously stop global warming and reduce the impact of humans on the environment. The COP21 conference failed to establish a carbon tax because making dirty energy more expensive is politically impossible. Clean energy is an engineering problem – it must be cheaper than coal.

The commercial development of nuclear fission is at a point which shares remarkable similarities with that of the steam engine 250 years ago.

– Following initial experiments, only one principle has been commercially deployed

– This technology has reached its limits

– The technology has been on the market for over 50 years

– Fuel use is low

– The cost of energy produced is not very competitive with the alternatives on the market

– A few hundred machines have been produced

– The machines have only one commercial use

– Human civilisation is facing an environmental crisis

– The rate of deployment of the machines is insufficient to solve the environmental crisis

– The theoretical potential remains enormous

– An improved system has been invented, with the potential for a disruptive reduction in the cost of energy

– This new system is in development

– The existing industry is saying that the new system is not feasible [1]

Just like Boulton & Watt, today’s nuclear innovators have realised the critical importance of reducing the cost of fission energy. But instead of trying to reduce fuel consumption, the economics of nuclear power require a reduction in the cost of the machine.

So why are current nuclear energy systems expensive?

When we split the atom, two new atoms are produced which are called fission products. They are highly radioactive and hazardous for humans. These atoms decay at differing rates until they become stable isotopes which are no longer hazardous.

In today’s pressurised water reactors, the fuel is a solid. The fission products remain trapped in the solid material but can escape if the fuel heats up and melts. Because some of the fission products are gases, containment of the reactor is required to avoid their dispersion in the atmosphere in the case of an accident. This containment is complicated and expensive because the system runs at very high pressure. These inherent fragilities require the use of many complicated and expensive safety systems to guarantee an acceptable level of safety.

The capital cost of a nuclear energy system is a function of the inherent safety profile of the reactor system.

In a molten salt reactor the fuel is a liquid. The mixture of salts is designed to remain liquid over a wide temperature range, and to allow the fissile material and most of the fission products to be dissolved in the form of salts which are chemically very stable. Expansion of the liquid according to its temperature ensures a strong inbuilt negative feedback mechanism which gives dynamically stable operation, at atmospheric pressure. With intrinsic safety assured by the physical and chemical design, “liquid fission” enables a much simpler and cheaper reactor.

An international race has begun to bring this technology to market. The magic of entrepreneurship, where a technical architect with an idea meets an investor with funding, is at work to build these machines, with millions of dollars already in play. The disruptive innovation of liquid fission is no longer a question of “if” – it is a question of “who” and “when”.


So who will be the Bolton & Watt of the 21st century?

Nuclear energy will follow the same development curve as the steam engine, but with a difference of about 250 years. Once it has competitive cost and a large production capacity, it will make an active contribution to the fight against global warming.

For liquid fission systems currently under development, the main elements which create value and allow cost to be reduced are:

– The intrinsic safety of the chemically stable liquid fuel

– Elegant, simplified design and well thought out architecture of the whole reactor system

– A higher operating temperature

– A modular approach to building construction, component manufacture, assembly and commissioning

For the future, there remains much potential for further cost reduction, with:

– Breeder reactor systems

– Smaller heat engines which better exploit the high operating temperatures

– A fuel cycle based on thorium, or which incinerates waste from existing reactors

– Material improvements to prolong the life of certain components

– A streamlined process for obtaining operating licenses

…not to mention inventions yet to come.

And like the steam engine, cheaper and smaller nuclear energy systems will find many new applications:

– Supply of industrial process heat

– Production of synthetic liquid fuels using water and carbon dioxide

– Desalination of sea water

– Production of electricity for off-grid communities

– Marine propulsion

This future is possible. It is even probable because it is necessary. With Boulton & Watt’s spirit of entrepreneurship we can build cheaper modern steam engines which will bring progress to humanity and to the planet.


[1] When John Smeaton saw the first Watt engine he reported to the Society of Engineers that “Neither the tools nor the workmen existed who could manufacture such a complex machine with sufficient precision”.

Nuclear GAINs in the USA

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on January 22nd, 2016

In November 2015, the US department of energy launched GAIN (the gateway for accelerated innovation in nuclear). The aim is “to provide the nuclear community with access to the technical, regulatory, and financial support necessary to move new or advanced nuclear reactor designs toward commercialization while ensuring the continued safe, reliable, and economic operation of the existing nuclear fleet.​”

Now the first initiative of GAIN has been launched: $80 million for development of advanced nuclear reactors. Specifically, the focus of the funding will be on the Xe-energy’s Xe-100 Pebble Bed Advanced Reactor and Southern Company Services’ Molten Chloride Fast Reactor. The two companies will each receive $6 million over a number of years.

The Xe-100 pebble bed high temperature gas-cooled reactor design builds on earlier DOE investment in Triso (tristructural-isotropic) fuel technology. The DOE states its selection for funding was based on its advanced safety features as well as its smaller size than conventional reactors meaning it could safely serve a variety of communities including densely populated areas. X-energy said that the funding would focus on technology development, including core modelling, fuel fabrication and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) “outreach”.

The Southern Company Services’ Molten Chloride Fast Reactor draws on the experiments of Alvin Weinberg and his team in the 1960s. The key advantages of the technology relative to other advanced reactors are the potential enhanced operational performance, safety, security and economics. Due to their advantages molten salt reactors are under development globally but the USA research specifically focuses on performing integrated effects tests and materials suitability studies to support reactor development.

Both projects represent significant partnerships of academia and industry. X-energy is working in partnership with BWX Technology, Oregon State University, Teledyne-Brown Engineering, SGL Group, Idaho National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Southern Company Services is developing their reactor in partnership with TerraPower, Electric Power Research Institute, Vanderbilt University, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Nuclear power is a critical energy source that provides almost 20 percent of the electricity generated in the United States, and over 60 percent of the nation’s carbon free electricity. However as Weinberg Next Nuclear reported in 2015, the US nuclear industry is currently in danger of withering. Therefore this new investment is vital for nuclear in the USA and globally. As Thomas Fanning, the Southern Company CEO argues, “nuclear energy’s importance will continue to grow as the USA transitions to a low-carbon energy future [and] this collaborative research effort will help accelerate the development of next generation nuclear reactors”.

High-time for high-temperature reactors to get a boost

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on October 14th, 2015

In December 2014, DECC announced £2 million of funding for a new nuclear research and development facility and issued a call for proposals. Last week it announced that Amec Foster Wheeler has been selected to lead this project, which the government hopes will lead the UK into a new age of nuclear progress.

Amec are not alone in this endeavour: they head a consortium including the National Nuclear Laboratory, EDF Energy, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, Urenco, the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester, the Universities of Bristol and Oxford, the Open University, and Imperial College London.

The new facility, which will be located at Amec’s existing high-temperature facility at Birchwood near Warrington, will support a range of innovative research but the main interest is high-temperature reactors. Specifically, there will be a focus on testing primary and secondary structural components and weld materials at temperatures up to 1000°C. Such conditions could be experienced in a range of future reactors including small modular reactors and other Generation IV designs.

The director of clean energy business consultancy at Amec, Greg Willetts said that the new research facility would help take the British industry back to being “a major contributor to advanced nuclear reactor technology”. This is an aim that Weinberg Next Nuclear very strongly support.

In the years of the space race, America’s best minds came together to achieve the monumental step of getting man to the moon. Today, a group of the UK’s most famous scientists, economists and businessmen is calling for a new Global Apollo programme to combat climate change. The aim is to bring together the same great ingenuity, and large funds, but this time to achieve the even more monumental step of getting to a sustainable society.

The main challenge of the day has moved on. Instead of a cold war, the greatest threat we face is a warming world. The programme’s introduction states:

“Climate change threatens us with increased risk of drought, flood and tempest, leading to mass migration and conflict. These dangers can be limited if the rise in temperature is less than 2˚C above the pre-industrial level. […] But, even if every promise is carried out, carbon-dioxide emissions will continue to rise. By 2035 the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will exceed the critical level for a 2˚C rise in temperature and on current policies the temperature will eventually reach 4˚C above the pre-industrial level. We must take action to prevent this, by radically cutting the world’s output of carbon dioxide. We must reduce the use of energy and we must make the energy we use clean.”

The programme seeks to revolutionise the energy sector by investing in research, development and demonstration of innovative technologies in order to make the cost of clean energy lower than the cost of polluting fossil fuels. The authors of the proposal (namely David King, John Browne, Richard Layard, Gus O’Donnell, Martin Rees, Nicholas Stern and Adair Turner) argue that clean energy already has huge social and environmental benefits over fossil fuels, but that it needs investment and innovation to become as cheap or cheaper, which would allow clean energy to “win all the battles”.

The authors’ “clean energy future” is built on three pillars of technology: renewables, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS). Thus far, the aims of the Global Apollo Programme and the Alvin Weinberg Foundation are very much on the same page. However, the Apollo Programme proposers believe that nuclear and CCS already have sufficient funding, so call for more funding solely for renewables. Here we disagree.

The report correctly says that nuclear fusion and conventional nuclear power are well funded, with schemes such as the G4 international programme for efficient on-site enrichment of uranium for nuclear fission and the International Thermonuclear Energy Reactor (ITER) programme for nuclear fusion which has enjoyed over £13 billion of funding. However these big figures and the enduring perception that expensive nuclear is overfunded, dangerously hide a huge gap in funding for research and development of what should be the nuclear of the future: advanced nuclear reactors.

At the time of the space race and the original Apollo Program, huge advances were being made in nuclear power. In fact it was the time when Alvin Weinberg himself did some of his best work, on advanced nuclear reactors. This contrasts hugely with the lack of progress today. It is a sad irony that the new Apollo program is not promoting further nuclear investment as was occurring at the time of the original.

AWF and the Apollo programme have a common cause. As supporters of all clean energy, AWF are very much in favour of further investment in renewables R&D. But further investment in advanced nuclear R&D is also desperately needed.

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