Sustaining Europe

21 November 2007

The shift in opinion at the European Commission towards actively supporting nuclear power is now long established. And whilst even vocal encouragement was first welcome to an industry that had encountered opposition from parts of the commission, this support is now more active. An excellent example was the 21 September 2007 launch of the sustainable-nuclear-energy-technology-platform, a formal European Union (EU)-sponsored body, bringing together researchers, public officials and nuclear industry managers to define and – crucially – implement a strategic research agenda for the sector. Its mission is to decide how research could help make nuclear fission power in Europe as clean, safe and efficient as possible, raising its popularity and making it an increasingly viable (economically and political) alternative to fossil fuel-based energy production. And having drafted realistic research proposals, the platform is supposed to keep on the case – making sure they get implemented.With global warming initiatives and concerns intensifying, the importance of making nuclear energy more palatable will grow, noted EU research commissioner Janez Potocnik at the platform’s launch: “It is clear that we need to address two important concerns – ensuring that nuclear power is economically competitive and, more importantly, our duty to make it as neutral as possible in environmental terms and in terms of the legacy we leave future generations. The answer to both these concerns can be found in research: innovation and the next generation of nuclear power plants, with increased safety, efficiency and a significant reduction in nuclear waste as well as sound ways of recycling or storing it.”

A real organisation

So how exactly will this platform work? Well, first up, it is a real organisation, with a governing board, an executive committee, working groups and a biennial ruling general assembly. Members are being drawn from the nuclear power industry, broad-based electricity utilities, research organisations, universities and public bodies or governments. The board is tasked with providing guidance on drafting and implementing a strategic research agenda for nuclear power, looking to exploit existing EU initiatives, budgets and structures. The executive committee is responsible for running the platform on a regular basis and coordinating the different working groups and projects, supported by a secretariat. Three panels report to the executive committee: one is drafting and updating the strategic research agenda; the second is responsible for implementing it; and a third panel will coordinate education and training to improve nuclear energy expertise in the EU and also conduct scientific evaluations of platform’s activities.These arms are assisted by a so-called ‘mirror group’, which is charged with boosting cooperation from pro-nuclear EU member states and the European Commission (EC) – helping ensure national research programmes follow the platform’s overall strategy. And there is also a technical safety organisations (TSO) group, advising on safety assessment-related research and development, to harmonise safety standards and methodologies across the EU. All these bodies have either met, or are planning meetings.This multi-faceted platform has a key job – and that is the drafting of a ‘Strategic Research Agenda’ (SRA), which will provide timetabled programmes for three important policy goals. These are:
  • Optimising the operations of existing reactors and promoting next generation light water reactors (generations II and III).
  • Preparing the deployment of future more sustainable nuclear systems, including advanced fuel cycles.
  • Widening the range of nuclear energy applications.
The platform is looking to the long term here – preparing strategies (called roadmaps) stretching to 2040, when its experts think the industrial deployment of fast neutron reactors can be envisaged. It also wants to be detailed in its planning and make use of existing EU nuclear research facilities where possible. The more detailed the plan, the more likely it is to have influence. A good example of where the platform is headed is its preliminary roadmap – still quite general at this stage – to develop a sodium-cooled fast reactor (SFR). Its proposed deadlines are as follows: 2009 – the pre-selection of design options; 2012 – the confirmation of design options, the drafting of preliminary and detailed design, safety analysis reports, validation R&D, construction of a prototype SFR of 250-600MWe; 2020 – launch of prototype operations R&D to assess the viability and performance of gas- and lead-cooled fast reactors, as well as accelerator-driven systems; 2010-12 – the selection of a second type of fast neutron system and the construction of a 50-100MWt experimental facility in Europe; 2020 – the launch of its operation; 2020-2040 – further R&D to design and optimise full-scale systems, to build a first-of-a-kind fast reactor and the beginning of commercial deployment.So there’s still plenty of flesh to put on these bones, but they are at least a decent skeleton. And with goodwill, and an effective platform pulling the EU’s nuclear research facilities in a coordinated direction, then maybe this new organisation will hasten technological progress in Europe’s nuclear power sector.That is certainly what Potocnik wants to see happen. In a report, he wrote: “It will ensure enhanced coordination between national and industrial programmes while guaranteeing the most effective use of [European Union general research] framework programme funding.” If his optimism is justified, then this new organisation will have been well worth founding.

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Maybe this new organisation will hasten technological progress in Europe's nuclear power sector


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