The European Vision of Current and New Nuclear Technologies
The European vision for the short-, medium-, and long-term development of nuclear energy technologies, with the aim of achieving a sustainable production of nuclear energy, can be summarized as follows:
• Nuclear energy is a key element in Europe’s future low-carbon energy system;
• The perspective of an important development of nuclear energy in the world (nuclear market renaissance) is relying in Generation III and III+ light water reactors, in which it is Europe’s interest to maintain its present industrial leadership;
• The development of Generation IV fast-neutron reactors with a closed fuel cycle requires technological breakthroughs. Such reactors could be deployed in the middle of the twenty-first century, to enhance significantly the sustainability of nuclear energy;
• Generation IV systems with a closed fuel cycle to substantially minimize the volume, the radiotoxicity content, and thermal load of the residual high-level waste requiring geological disposal. As a consequence, the isolation time and repository volume can be reduced.
The immense majority of the current nuclear power reactors in operation in the world use nuclear fission technology for the production of electricity. Nuclear fission energy is one of the highly technological sectors in which Europe has undisputedly acquired a world leadership. The renewal of a worldwide interest in nuclear fission technologies demonstrates a general recognition of the merits of this energy source. However, Europe’s leadership in the world competition is now challenged by large-scale initiatives from the USA, Russia, China, Republic of Korea, and India and by its own energy policy in favor of the use of renew- able energy source for the generation of electricity. Europe, which has the largest nuclear industry in the world, continuously enforced a high safety level, particularly after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, while promoting fuel and system innovation thanks to its research programs. In order to preserve this unique asset, and bearing in mind the growing public opinion in opposition to the use of nuclear energy for the generation of electricity in several EU member states, it is imperative to strengthen the structure of EU research and development forces and its nuclear industrial community.
In the field of fission technology, the position of several European coun- tries is very clear. The technology is well developed and, for this reason, the nuclear industry should take care of the design of more efficient and inherently safe nuclear power reactors. There are some progresses in this direction in the last years with the construction in Finland and in France of a new generation of nuclear power reactors of the so-called “Generation III and III+.” It is expected that when decisions on the construction of new nuclear power reactors will be taken by a group of countries, particularly in the European region, several attractive new and more efficient nuclear power reactor designs using this type of technology will be already available on the market.
By far, the largest financial contribution of Europe into research in the nuclear area is into fusion technology. The goal of European fusion research is to demonstrate the viability of this type of technology as a future energy option to meet the fore- seeable increase in the energy needs of a growing world population.
According to the EU Web page Fusion for Energy, “since 1957 a European Fusion Program coordinated research has been established by successive EURATOM frame- work programs. This has enabled the development of experiments that come ever closer to the conditions needed to an electricity-producing fusion reactor.” However, after many years of large fusion research using different types of equipment, a conclusion was reached that a larger and more powerful device would be needed to create the conditions expected in a fusion reactor and to demonstrate its scientific and technical feasibility of a future production of energy (Morales Pedraza 2012).
Taking into account the scale of the challenge to create the necessary conditions expected in a fusion reactor to produce power, fusion has entered a new era of global cooperation with the creation of the project called “International Experimental Energy Reactor (ITER)” that brings together Europe and six other countries,7 representing over one half of the world’s population. The purpose of these countries has been to construct the largest ever fusion experiment in the South of France with the aim of dominating the fusion technology. The construc- tion of this nuclear power reactor will enable Europe to assume a leading position worldwide in the development of the fusion technology.
The construction costs of ITER are estimated at €5 billion to be spread over a period of ten years. A similar amount is foreseen for the twenty-year operation phase of ITER, which will follow the construction period. During the construction of the ITER device, 90 % of the components by value will be contributed by the parties in kind, meaning that they will contribute the components themselves, rather than paying for them. Europe will contribute up to half of the construction costs as the host party and the other six parties will each contribute up to 10 %, thus giving a 10 % contingency within the present funding (Westra 2007).
However, the use of fusion reactors to produce electricity at experimental scale is not expected to be ready before 2020. At the same time, the fusion technology for the production of electricity is not expected to be commercially available before 2050, or even later. To reach this stage, it is important to solve, in the coming years and in an acceptable manner, the main difficulties and technological problems that the use of this technology is now facing. This is something very difficult to predict at this stage. For this reason, the use of the fusion technology for electricity production is a long-term solution not only for the European countries interested in the use of nuclear energy for the generation of electricity, but also for other countries as well (Morales Pedraza 2008).