Posts Tagged safety

Three Mile Island – the real disaster

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on June 2nd, 2017

In 1979, Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania experienced a meltdown. Although no one died, the incident was labeled a disaster. However the real disaster appears to still be the impact these events had on the industry.

This week the owner of the plant said it would have to prematurely shut down in September 2019 due to unsupportive policy causing financial issues. The Three Mile Island and Fukushima incidents have placed significant pressure on the nuclear industry through increased regulation and further safety systems. These have added to costs making reactors like Three Mile Island unprofitable.

Safety and regulation is obviously important, but they have often been based on fear rather than science, and not accompanied by sufficient support and innovation for the industry. The consequences of a decline of nuclear are severe. Not only does it provide long term, reliable power, it also contributes to energy security and avoids dangerous air pollution and greenhouse gasses. There is concern that the decline of nuclear is offsetting growth in renewables meaning a lack of progress for overall low carbon power.

The American industry is in trouble, but it is also symptomatic of many other countries in the world. Especially in Europe, early retirements are common and even in supportive countries like the UK, new nuclear is struggling to gain traction. However with the consequences to health, security and the climate that a loss of nuclear power risks, it is essential that a new generation of nuclear power is supported and encouraged.



Engineers echo politicians: SMRs could help the UK post-Brexit

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on May 11th, 2017

Following the recent publication of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Select Committee’s report on the nuclear industry post-Brexit, the Institution for Mechanical Engineers have echoed their findings. In a report published last week (Leaving the EU, the Euratom Treaty Part 2: A Framework for the Future) the Institution argues that small modular reactors could be the key to securing the UK’s nuclear future post-Brexit.

The risks to the UK nuclear industry post-Brexit are well known, with leaving Euratom a particular concern that could damage nuclear innovation, as well as risk fuel supply and confuse regulation. The Institution’s report suggests some paths the UK Government could take to tackle this key issue Brexit poses. For instance, they recommend developing a UK Safeguarding Office to conform to international rules, as there is no fall back to Euratom in a no-deal scenario. This would cover regulation of safety and non-proliferation. In the Institution’s (and in Weinberg’s) view, the UK would ideally seek associate membership of Euratom to continue research and development cooperation.

This research and development commitment is key, with the Institution’s argument in this report being that Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) could be the sector that secures the nuclear industry’s success post-Brexit. As such they recommend pursuing the currently delayed SMR competition, opportunities for demonstration and commercialisation, and collaboration with devolved and local government to ensure sites are developed. The report mentions Trawsfynydd in Wales as one such option for development.

Jenifer Baxter, the Institution’s head of energy and environment and lead author of the report, said “The UK’s departure from the EU and Euratom is likely to be complicated and difficult, but it also presents the country with an opportunity to reshape its nuclear industry and once again become a world-leading innovator in nuclear technology.”

Weinberg Next Nuclear believe the Government should take very seriously the reports from the BEIS Select Committee and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and make the production of a nuclear strategy plan a priority. Brexit poses many risks to the UK nuclear industry and it is essential that these be managed to allow the UK’s nuclear sector to thrive again.


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.

Nuclear fear and the recent Japanese Earthquake

Posted by John Lindberg on November 25th, 2016

The last few weeks have been marked by earthquakes, especially if you live around the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’. New Zealand and Japan, both countries well accustomed to these violent forces, have been hit by magnitude 7.8 and 7.4 shocks respectively. Whilst the media drew our attention to a couple of cows being stranded in New Zealand, the reaction in the Japanese case was markedly different. If one followed the live broadcasts, or tapped into social media, the spectre of nuclear catastrophe was making an appearance again.

Before the Fukushima accident in 2011, very few would ever take notice of the countless earthquakes that shake Japan, at least from a nuclear perspective. Yes, some would always argue that placing nuclear power plants in one of the world’s most earthquake-prone regions might not be such a good idea. However, in terms of engineering the Japanese nuclear power stations are shining examples of how to overcome obstacles. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake was the most powerful earthquake to have struck Japan, but thanks to the engineering of the nuclear power stations, not a single one was damaged by the earthquake itself, and they were all shut down in a safe manner. Placing emergency cooling systems in basements – as was the case at Fukushima – was not a very good idea. It was this oversight in regards to a secondary system that made the Fukushima nuclear power plant vulnerable to tsunamis, and problems like this should no longer occur with stricter regulation.

The earthquake earlier this week only reaffirmed the strength of Japanese engineering, with no reports of damage at any of the nuclear power plants. The reactions, and direct attempts of trying to revitalise the memories of Fukushima, are, however, symptomatic of a wider fear of nuclear. It seems the very coupling of earthquake and Japan reawakens the imagery of Fukushima. Recycling images from the 2011 accident, especially the hydrogen explosions, was common.

The Japanese overreaction after Fukushima has seen the country’s greenhouse gas emissions increase extensively as it shut down all its nuclear power stations and replaced it with coal and gas. A few nuclear power stations has started to come back online, but the costs – both to the environment and in financial terms – has been considerable. At Weinberg Next Nuclear, we hope to see more of the Japanese nuclear power stations to come back online during 2017

However, the global fallout from this has been significant. Germany decided to shut down its nuclear power stations out of fear that similar accidents could happen in there. The replacement was not just the renewables that propelled Germany into international fame and awe, but also lignite, the most polluting of coals. Germany is not alone in this anti-nuclear trend. In 2012 a replacement nuclear power plant in Lithuania was rejected in a referendum, and this weekend the Swiss people will decide the future of nuclear in Switzerland in a referendum. The fear of nuclear severely undermines efforts on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality and reducing the detrimental impacts of coal (waste etc). The fear of nuclear and radiation are issues of very high importance, and necessitate changes in how nuclear power is being marketed. This is one of the key challenges moving forward for proponents of nuclear.

Weinberg Next Nuclear are delighted to share this submission from May 2016 by Professor Wade Allison to the Science and Technology Committee of the UK Commons. Wade Allison is Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford where he researched and taught for 40 years as a Fellow of Keble College. He has studied the risks involved in radiological and nuclear accidents as seen from medical, scientific and popular perspectives. He has published two excellent books, in 2009 Radiation and Reason: The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fearand in 2015 Nuclear is for Life: A Cultural Revolution, which Weinberg Next Nuclear highly recommend.


1. Summary

Life is naturally well protected against all but the very highest radiation exposures and evolutionary biology has ensured this so that life may survive. The low casualty record in all radiological and nuclear accidents confirms the effectiveness of this protection, as do laboratory experiments and the benefits of radiation as used in clinical medicine for over a century.

The commonly held view that radiation is exceptionally dangerous has been sustained by: a) residual memory of Cold War threats; b) unfamiliarity with the broad role of biology; c) a taste for the more exciting stories of accidents offered by the media; d) the guidance offered by a network of international safety committees that prefers caution to scientific evidence. This guidance has resulted in national regulations that specify that any exposure to radiation should be kept As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA), for no scientific reason.

While the radiation released in a radiological or nuclear accident has a small health effect, if any, the emergency procedures taken with international guidance themselves cause suffering, loss of life and severe socio-economic damage, sometimes on a global scale. Current policy that aims to appease public concern rather than educate people about radiation has caused plans for new nuclear plants to be strangled by unjustifiable regulatory hurdles and escalating costs, resulting in uncompetitive energy prices and increased carbon emissions.

Two conclusions:

•          Bottom up, on radiation and  nuclear energy we need a fresh programme of science-wide public education in schools and in the community as a whole via the media, omitting the ghoulish images used in the past. Local UK-based initiatives should contribute to worldwide re-education, for example through the BBC.

•          Top down, on radiation safety we need a complete change in international guidance. This should be based on scientific understanding and evidence, not the unjustified precaution inherent in the ALARA/LNT philosophy.[3]Initiatives for such a change should be pursued and supported by the UK more formally.[4]

2. Scientific background

Because radiation has always been part of the natural environment, life has evolved protection against attack by it. Biological experiments and a century of clinical experience with life-saving radiotherapy have confirmed the efficacy of this protection, even for quite high doses. As for accidents, only in a handful of instances have radiation dose rates been high enough for this natural protection to fail causing loss of life; the largest being 4 deaths at the radiological accident at Goiania (1987) and 43 deaths at the nuclear accident at Chernobyl (1986). Further, because radioactivity (and the radiation it emits) do not catch and spread in the way that fire and infectious diseases do, nuclear and radiological accidents have a rather low direct impact on life, in strong contrast to what is generally supposed.

3. The accident at Fukushima Daiichi

Two weeks after the accident[5] I published an article on the BBC World Service,[6] We should stop running away from radiation. It discussed why the response to the accident was scientifically and sociologically inappropriate. In December 2011 I made a written submission to the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee on the subject.[7] Since the accident I have visited Japan four times, given public lectures there and discussed with doctors, social workers, community leaders, evacuees, school teachers and others involved on the ground.

4. The public view

The real impact of such accidents is transmitted through public opinion and the media. The damage to health is essentially social and mental – it manifests itself as public panic and a loss of confidence in science and society. At Chernobyl and also at Fukushima those who were exposed to radiation felt themselves condemned as if by a curse, resulting in alcoholism, family breakup and attitudes of hopelessness.[8] Few knew anything about radiation except for the historical link in the public consciousness between radiation and nuclear weapons including testing. During the period of the Cold War and Nuclear Arms Race fear of radiation was heightened for political and strategic reasons. However most people are surprised to learn that 99% of those killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki died from the blast and fire and that only 1% died of cancer from the radiation explosion. Furthermore the medical records of the survivors families now available after fifty years confirm that there has been no detectable inherited effect from the radiation. The same is true for data from accidents and laboratory studies.

5. The view of the authorities

In their situation for the past 70 years national and international public authorities have been anxious to appease public concern about any radiological accident, and they have adopted an exceptional precautionary safety policy. By legalising radiation exposures only at a very low level it was believed that the public that they would come to no harm. Such a cautious approach may be appropriate for a technology before it is fully understood or when practical experience of it is limited, but for radiation high levels have been in regular clinical use worldwide for over a century so that this policy is restrictive. Nevertheless regulations in all nations do treat radiation as if it were an extraordinary hazard and safe limits are set As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) – in practice this means a small addition to the radiation that would be received anyway from natural processes. Thanks to the protection provided by nature this guidance is overly conservative by a factor in the region of a thousand.

6. When “the impossible” occurs

Under this draconian safety regime it is supposed that accidents should not happen, although this does not  reassure the public about nuclear safety, nor should it. There is no design of nuclear reactor that cannot be overwhelmed by nature and the public should be prepared for this unlikely event. Otherwise, when they see “the impossible” happening, they panic and loose all confidence in the authorities and in the ability of science to protect them – that is a fair description of the disaster that occurred at Fukushima in 2011. Recovery from such a loss of confidence is difficult. Unfortunately the nuclear authorities worldwide see their task in terms of engineering and management only, not radiobiology, teaching and psychology. Their natural reaction has therefore been to improve the physical safety of reactors even further. Unfortunately trying too hard to apply the wrong solution drives up costs without reason. This is the story of Hinkley C, perhaps, designed to be safe beyond the bounds of what is buildable, economic and necessary.

7. Education for confidence and safety

To be effective safety policy should concentrate on education to explain and make dangers more familiar. For example, fire drills are held regularly in institutions to train everybody so that they know what to do in the event of a fire. In addition from an early age every child is taught the danger of fire and how it can easily spread. Although nuclear radiation is far safer than fire people still need to become familiar with it, to know how it is detected with a simple alarm[9] and how to minimise personal exposure to it. Issuing instructions after an accident has occurred and the population is in a state of shock is too late. The public needs to understand beforehand so that individuals can take rapid and decisive action. This provides confidence at all times and informed response to an accident. What happened in March 2011 in Japan in response to the tsunami provides an example. The Japanese are taught about earthquakes and tsunamis at school and in public education. As a result they are prepared, and in the event 96% of those in the inundated region reached safety with only 30 minutes warning after the earthquake. The loss of 18,800 lives was seemingly understood and accepted, but the release of radioactivity from the damaged reactors at Fukushima Daiichi was not, even five years later. For this radiation there had been no public education and no proper plan. The result was widespread public shock even though there was no hospital admission due to the radiation itself – and the scientific evidence shows there will be no loss of life in the next fifty years. However the immediate loss of life caused by the inept and unnecessary evacuation has been put at 1600; wider social effects, from alcoholism to power shortages and increased reliance on carbon fuels, occurred as a result of the mutual loss of trust between the public and the authorities. None of this would have happened if there had been honest explanatory education about radiation, what it does to life (and what it does not), and discussion and familiarity with practice, as for earthquakes or fire.

8.  ALARA and the LNT Model

The authorities with responsibility for radiological accidents and radiation safety have pursued a policy based on ALARA dating back to the 1950s. Its rationale is a hypothesis called Linear No-Threshold (LNT) which basically says that any radiation exposure however slight is harmful. But this is not based on evidence. It is a pseudo-science like alchemy in earlier times. In that case the human emotion of avarice overrode the evidence encouraging the hope that base metals might be turned into gold. Here it is the human emotion of fear that makes the simplistic LNT attractive in spite of the contrary evidence. LNT contradicts the known principles of evolutionary biology and was discredited at length in a unanimous Joint Report published in 2005 by the Académie des Sciences and the Académie Nationale de Médecine, in Paris.[10] The evidence in this report has been denied by the international safety committees who also have not faced up to the cost and suffering for which their guidance based on ALARA/LNT is responsible. There is widespread concern amongst those who understand at this departure from science-based knowledge. In the past couple of years an international ad hocgroup of about 100 professional engineers, doctors, oncologists, biologists, physical scientists and others has joined forces to pursue this injustice in academic journals, internet media, professional societies, lectures, personal and political contacts in countries around the world. Of course it is very hard for any long-standing officially constituted international committee to execute a U-turn, but that is what is required and the policy of the UK should be to press for that.[11]Nations that first wholeheartedly embrace this new perspective of the human relationship with radiation should enjoy an important competitive advantage in the years ahead through cheaper energy, cultural leadership and a cleaner and safer environment.[12] The UK should be one of those nations.


Professor Wade Allison can be contacted for questions via this address:


[1]ISBN 978-0-956275615 in paperback and Kindle editions

[2]ISBN 978-0-956275646  in paperback and online editions.

[3]Acronyms for As Low As Reasonably Achievable and Linear No-Threshold hypothesis, see later

[4]A report quoting an example of such initiatives

[5]In this brief submission I use this accident as an example. The Goiania, Chernobyl and other accidents are covered elsewhere..




[9]The technology of a domestic smoke alarm could provide a cheap solution if built into a mobile phone.


[11]There is a superfluity of  such bodies UNSCEAR, ICRP, NEA, IAEA, WHO, etc. and many national ones too (in US: NAS, NRC, NCRP, EPA with more in UK and Japan).


Greenpeace’s opposition to nuclear is helping fossil fuels

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on March 21st, 2016

On the anniversary of the devastating Japanese tsunami that resulted in the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant, Greenpeace launched a campaign and film aimed at preventing any future for nuclear power both in Japan and globally.

Greenpeace was founded to oppose nuclear weapons testing, so it is understandable that they remain against nuclear to this day. However their blanket comparison of nuclear weapons and nuclear power is unfair, many of the facts they state about Fukushima are misleading, and their opposition to nuclear power is inadvertently encouraging the prolonged use of fossil fuels and the terrible climate consequences they cause. It is time they joined the tide of realistic environmentalists and stopped their campaign against nuclear.

Nuclear is low-carbon, and provides more of the world’s clean energy than all renewables put together[1] according to the IEA. It is also the safest energy source when comparing deaths per kilowatt year as the bar graph from David MacKay’s “Sustainability without the hot air” shows (click on image to enlarge).

greenpeace 1

Greenpeace neglects to mention these points. Instead, they focus on the disruption that Fukushima caused. Calling the accident a disaster is controversial. The preceding tsunami was certainly disastrous, a horrific natural event which caused immeasurable suffering. The nuclear accident however, caused no deaths and there is no evidence of increased cancer raters according the World Health Organization. As Greenpeace’s own (and as such not unbiased) research shows, there is radiation at the site. But it must be remembered that radiation is natural, and people are exposed to it every day; a cat scan, x-ray, trans-Atlantic flight or holiday to parts of Brazil, Cornwall or Scotland all involve exposure to radiation and, in many cases, a greater dose than those recorded at Fukushima.

In fact much research, including a new paper by the Oxford Journal of Public Health has argued that there was no need to evacuate the Fukushima site due to public health radiation reasons, instead arguing it was only done for “public order” but in doing so caused unnecessary stress. It is also unfair to assign these emotive negatives of energy production to just nuclear. Fukushima caused the potentially unnecessary relocation of 140 000 people. The Three Gorges, renewable hydro damn in neighbouring China caused the relocation of approximately 1.3 million people, as well as hundreds of deaths in construction and many more in upstream floods and landslides; a far more disastrous impact than Fukushima.

These drawbacks of renewable power are understated by Greenpeace. But there is a greater problem with their opposition to nuclear: it is encouraging the use of fossil fuels. Japan closed all of its reactors following Fukushima. To compensate, they massively increased investment in renewables but these technologies alone were only able to make a tiny impact on filling the gap in the energy mix: the rest came from fossil fuels. As the pie charts below show (source IEA), the closure of nuclear meant an increase in dirty fossil fuel production by a huge amount and an equally huge reduction in Japan’s clean energy generation. In time, no doubt, Japan will be able to increase its renewable share, but there will remain no other sustainable alternatives to heating and industry energy needs. Therefore the gap left by nuclear in the foreseeable future can only be filled with fossil fuels. Without suggesting a feasible alternative, it is surprising – if not shocking – that Greenpeace continue to allow their blanket opposition of nuclear to inadvertently advocate a fossil fuel future.


Greenpeace 2

Though Greenpeace may not have taken into account the issues of replacing nuclear, the Japanese people are starting to suffer the consequences and change their opinions accordingly. The huge growth in imports of fossil fuels forced rapid and significant increases in energy costs as well as emissions. This cost was passed on to the consumers and people began to question the sense in leaving so many clean power plants idle. The Greenpeace video interviewed the previous, anti-nuclear prime minister. They neglect to mention that he was democratically voted out of government; instead the people of Japan voted in a coalition of pro-nuclear parties. In fact, in the July 2013 election the pro-nuclear LDP party won a seat in every constituency with a nuclear power plant and the anti-nuclear party won only 59 (out of 242) seats. Although opinion is understandably split, it seems Japan is on balance happy to embrace the benefits of re-starting its reactors, and Greenpeace are fighting against this tide of positive opinion.

Greenpeace’s video concludes with emotive interviews, one of which is a long statement against nuclear weapons. It is an unfair and poor comparison to link nuclear power with nuclear weapons in this way as they are completely different and an acceptance of nuclear power does not stop one being opposed to nuclear weapons. In fact, the main way of destroying nuclear weapons is by reacting the material in nuclear power stations. So nuclear power is in fact the key mechanism to achieve disarmament.

Greenpeace’s action on highlighting the urgency of climate change and encouraging renewables is valuable. But Greenpeace must reconsider their action on nuclear power. Nuclear is a clean, sustainable and safe energy source, especially with the new post-Fukushima technology now on offer. It is also the only current feasible and sustainable way of providing the energy needed for heating and industry that accounts for over half of global energy demand. A growing group of environmentalists are now coming out publically in support of nuclear, arguing that it is vitally needed to combat the greater evil of climate change. Before Fukushima, Japan had plans to provide an impressive 50% of its energy from low carbon (nuclear) sources by 2030. By the mid century, the climate crises will be rapidly worsening and the world will need to drastically decarbonize. Japan’s clean energy ambition, exploiting an “all of the above” strategy, should therefore be encouraged, not opposed.

[1] Excluding biomass and waste.

2017 in China set to be the year of advanced nuclear

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on February 16th, 2016

The Chinese have long responded to rapidly growing demand in energy by pursuing progress in all technologies. Now, they seem to be about to have a breakthrough with nuclear power, announcing that they plan to have an advanced reactor online by the end of next year.

The hopeful design is a high-temperature, gas cooled, pebble-bed reactor. The key advantage is its passive safety – it is unable to melt down. This is due to the fact the uranium fuel is encased in pebble sized balls, preventing the fuel from breaking down, and also because the reactor is meant to operate at high temperatures, so does not need constant cooling systems which can fail. The pebbles also lessen waste problems by making the uranium easier to dispose of. Eventually China aims to recycle all of its nuclear waste products as part of a sustainable nuclear programme.

The technology itself is not new. It was developed in Germany decades ago, but has never been built on a commercial scale. The construction is underway in the Shandong province south of Beijing and is nearing completion. A series of tests will be conducted this year before energy production can start in 2017.

Successful demonstration of this advanced reactor will be a significant step for nuclear progress not only in China but also in the rest of the world. And the Chinese are determined to take this significant step. As Charles Forsberg, executive director of the MIT Nuclear Fuel Cycle Project, said, “What you are seeing is serious intent.” If this serious intent is translated into reality, it could have global impacts on making energy more sustainable, and the climate more secure.


A Comprehensive Molten Salt Reactor Review

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on September 7th, 2015

Last year, an exciting development occurred for advanced nuclear power: Molten salt reactor (MSR) investigation won funding from the Technology Strategy Board. The Alvin Weinberg Foundation welcomed the development, writing “MSRs could be a game-changing way of producing clean electricity, so this is great news for all who support the revival of clean energy R&D to tackle climate change”. The bid was led by Jasper Tomlinson, Professor Trevor Griffiths, and project manager Rory O’Sullivan, who together planned to produce the UKs first rigorous study of the feasibility of a pilot-scale MSR. And the results are now in.

The review not only argues the necessity of nuclear power, but seeks to answer the questions of how to pursue it. Current nuclear deployment appears, the study states, to be locked into old solid-fuelled technology, with little innovation since the 1970s and even less development of advanced options such as MSRs. Previous reviews of MSRs, such as the Generation VI Forum January 2014 Report, have concluded that the technology is one of the furthest from commercial deployment. However much has been achieved in the MSR world in recent years, and taking into account the latest developments this publication concludes that the time is now right for a “commitment to an agenda to proceed with a molten salt reactor programme”. Six different reactor options were assessed in the MSR review:

  • Fibre Energy’s Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR),
  • Martingale’s ThorCon,
  • Moltex Energy’s Stable Salt Reactor
  • Seaborg Technologies – Seaborg Waste Burner
  • Terrestrial Energy’s Integral MSR
  • Transatomic Power Reactor

All six display the advantageous characteristics of using molten salt as fuel and coolant including safety, less waste, higher thermal efficiency, fuel cycle flexibility (including the ability to use up the plutonium stockpile as fuel) and co-generation opportunities afforded by the high temperatures at which the reactors operate. Despite finding advantages in all the reactor designs, the review concludes that The Stable Salt Reactor, the design proposed by Moltex Energy, is the best option to pursue. The Stable Salt Reactor is a fast spectrum pool type reactor but its unique characteristic compared with the other designs is that the fuel is static.

Most Molten Salt reactors involve the highly radioactive liquid being actively pumped through a heat exchanger while the Moltex design encases the radioactive molten salt (a fraction of spent nuclear fuel mixed with sodium chloride to reduce its melting point) within metal tubes, similar to the fuel rods in traditional reactors. The flow of molten salt in the tubes is entirely by natural convection with no moving parts involved meaning no possibility of pump failure. The pool of coolant is another molten salt that makes the reactor intrinsically safe since any leakage of radioactive fuel is mixed and diluted in the large pool of coolant. Unlike all other molten salt reactor designs, this design in not a derivative of the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (where MSR designs were initially developed in the 1960s) and is instead a truly 21st century design. Along with a whole host of benefits the Stable Salt Reactor is designed so that all components can be constructed in segments and assembled at any given site. This modular design is far simpler and more affordable than todays reactors and makes deployment all the more attractive.

The report concludes that this UK designed reactor, “due to its relative simplicity and relatively few and low technical hurdles, is the most suitable configuration for immediate pilot scale development in the UK”. Regardless of the specific reactor, the report also outlines the general advantages to the UK of pursuing an MSR program. Britain’s role as a leader in nuclear power has been declining since the 1970s with no new plant built since Sizewell-B in 1987. Currently, the UK has a non-existent nuclear R&D spend compared with other countries. However, the advantages of redeveloping our nuclear strength are many, including manufacturing growth, employment, energy security, reduced waste insecurity, positive contribution to carbon reduction targets, and technology export potential. With clear advantages, and a promising design to develop in the Stable Salt Reactor, it must be hoped the government, in the midst of scrapping subsidies and despairing over delays at Hinkley C, see the prosperity an MSR program could bring.  

Safe, safer, safest. There’s always room to improve, says U.S. Dept. of Energy deputy assistant secretary Edward McGinnis.

WARSAW – A senior official in the U.S. Department of Energy said here on Monday that as safe as conventional nuclear is, it is incumbent upon governments around the world to help industry develop even safer designs.

“Do we need to continue on behalf of our respective citizenry to advance the ball and come up with even safer designs – more secure, more efficient?  Yes we do,” said Edward McGinnis, deputy assistant secretary for international nuclear energy policy and cooperation. “And so government has a key role in that.”

McGinnis was addressing the World Nuclear Power Briefing Europe 2012 conference, organized by New Zealand-based conference firm Strategic Communications.

His remarks contrasted with those last week by World Nuclear Association acting director general Steve Kidd, who said he opposed any nuclear rebranding effort that might suggest that existing, safe reactors are not safe.

“I want to be clear that we have great faith in the reactors in our country and the situation worldwide,” DOE’s McGinnis agreed. “We have strong regulatory bodies, we have strong multilateral groups looking at regulatory.

“But in nuclear just like many things in life there is never one single end point where you should stop trying to improve. We should always be seeking to improve. It doesn’t suggest that we don’t have effective systems today, which we do. But we need to continuously advance the technologies and the approaches and processes.”


While that includes adding safety features and improving fuel tolerance in conventional reactors, it also “absolutely includes” developing other reactor types, McGinnis said.

“We’re looking beyond light water (conventional) reactors through R&D,” he said, noting that DOE has taken a particular interest in sodium cooled fast reactors and in high temperature gas reactors.

Technical experts at the DOE “need to validate” whether  technologies like those as well as molten salt designs are suitable for applications that could include serving as a source of industrial process heat, he said.

DOE’s international projects include a collaboration with China to develop molten salt coolants, an initiative in which U.S.-based Westinghouse is serving as commercial adviser.

China intends to use the coolant in a reactor that uses liquid thorium fuel, similar to the liquid thorium molten salt reactor (TMSR)  that Oak Ridge National Laboratory built in the 1960s before President Nixon terminated the project.

DOE has said it wants to test the coolant in a high temperature reactor, but not necessarily one that uses liquid fuel such as in a TMSR.


Some thorium supporters have criticized the collaboration, claiming that the U.S. should advance TMSR technology itself rather than help provide it to China.

“We ensure that our collaboration is balanced, reciprocal and appropriate,” McGinnis replied when I asked him about those concerns. “We have a positive technical set of collaborations with them that extends into the high temperature gas reactor and other areas.”

He noted that China is a major developer of nuclear energy and is investing heavily in research and development of alternatives.

“It’s a shrinking global world, and so we have to work together and I think it’s a very positive reflection of China and the United States – that we’re collaborating,” he said.

The project, which includes DOE’s Oak Ridge lab in Tennessee and three U.S universities – MIT, the University of California Berkeley, and the University of Wisconsin – could be an example of how the DOE finds what McGinnis called the “sweet spot” of assisting industry in R&D without getting involved in commercial power generation.

In a notable step toward facilitating alternative nuclear, DOE last month awarded funding to a group led by Babcock & Wilcox to develop a “modular” reactor that is much smaller than traditional reactors and that could cut end user costs.

Photo by Mark Halper

Nature blazes the Thorium Trail

Posted by Laurence O'Hagan on December 7th, 2012

Molten-salt reactors would be impervious to catastrophic meltdown; instead of producing nuclear waste laced with plutonium and other long-lived radioisotopes, they could destroy those isotopes almost completely.

So reads a new article in Nature US by M. Mitchell Waldrop: Nuclear energy: Radical reactors, an articulate report on thorium-fuelled MSRs, with insight from Flibe Energy’s Kirk Sorensen: “For decades, one design has dominated nuclear reactors while potentially better options were left by the wayside. Now, the alternatives might finally have their day.”

The impact of this report in one of the US leading environmental science publications should not be underestimated – provoking the oil lobby to fight back; stirring up the debate on the risks of thorium’s proliferation properties.

Thou does protest too much?

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