UK scientists explore way for quicker, safer nuclear power

Scientists at Cambridge University have joined a team to develop safer nuclear energy

British researchers are helping in an international project to develop a new type of nuclear power station that is safer, more cost-effective, compact, quicker and less disruptive to build than any type previously constructed.

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), as part of the Research Councils UK Energy Programme, a team at the University of Cambridge is exploring whether the element thorium could help to meet the new design’s fuel needs. As well as being three to four times more abundant than uranium, thorium could potentially produce electricity more fuel efficiently and therefore more cheaply.

The scientists at Cambridge will focus on how thorium, which can be converted into the isotope uranium-233, could be used alongside uranium silicide to fuel the I2S-LWR.

The project, which is the brainchild of the US Department of Energy and led by Georgia Institute of Technology, is aimed at designing a power plant that’s size would be reduced and safety enhanced by breaking with convention.

This would be b y integrating the main heat exchangers inside the secure pressure vessel where the nuclear reactions take place. These changes also give the design its name: Integral Inherently Safe Light Water Reactor (I2S-LWR).

Dr Geoff Parks, who is leading the Cambridge team, says: “The fact that we are part of such a pioneering international project not only reflects the UK’s enduring reputation in nuclear science and engineering – it also provides a platform for the UK to develop a new suite of relevant, globally marketable skills for the years and decades ahead. If all goes to plan, construction of the first I2S-LWRs could begin in around 10 years, making deployment of nuclear power more practical, more cost-effective and more publicly acceptable worldwide.”

The I2S-LWR, which can be constructed off-site, module by module, and then quickly assembled on site, would be suitable for deployment worldwide.

No new nuclear power station has been built here since Sizewell B began generating in 1995. With a power rating of around 1GW, the output from the I2S-LWR would be comparable with Sizewell B’s 1.2GW rating, but the station should be significantly less costly in real terms.

It is hoped that this project could help the UK renew its technical expertise in civil nuclear power and attract a new generation of engineers and scientists to the field.  Experts in the field have shrunk over the last few decades, with public opinion opposing nuclear power.