Several side events which took place during the international Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) 61st General Conference in Vienna considered prospects for advanced reactors. At a side event on “Nuclear Energy Innovation and the Paris Agreement” on 19 September, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said: “It is timely that we highlight the role of nuclear power in reducing environmental impacts, particularly CO2 emissions.” Participants at the meeting looked at deployment of nuclear energy innovations that can support the reporting of countries’ five-year Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change adopted in 2015, which set a target of limiting the increase in global temperature to below 2°C. “Innovations in nuclear technologies can significantly help global climate efforts. When countries update their NDCs, they should consider the evolving role of nuclear power in their low-carbon energy mix to replace high-carbon sources,” said Amano.

“There are a number of advanced nuclear power technologies such as accident tolerant fuels, high temperature reactors, small modular reactors (SMRs), non-electric nuclear applications and innovative nuclear systems with great potential for enhanced competiveness and sustainability, as well as make substantial contributions to greenhouse gas emission reduction,” said Stefano Monti, Head of the IAEA’s Nuclear Power Technology Development Section. “Some are ready or almost available for deployment, while others are at very different stages of development, from pre-conceptual design to detailed design and demonstration,” he added. Once they are commercially available, these technologies can be incorporated into country updates of their NDCs.

Delegates emphasised the importance of investment in research and innovation as well as simplification of the regulatory framework, enhanced infrastructure, public perception and support. “These key factors are imperative to meet the increased levels of ambition needed to achieve the Paris Agreement goal,” said William Magwood, Director General of the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). He presented NEA’s Nuclear Innovation 2050 (NI2050) initiative. As the global need for the development of next-generation advanced technologies grows, the NI2050 focuses on the potential of nuclear fission technology defining main priority areas and topics where the R&D is necessary to push for innovation.

“Multilateral approaches can create the confidence needed for a worldwide deployment of innovative technologies,” he said in his keynote speech. “All stakeholders, in particular the science, industry and regulatory communities – each with their specific competencies and responsibilities – need to be part of a renewed innovation process through early involvement and continued interaction.”

The Head of the IAEA's Planning and Economic Studies Section, David Shropshire, explained that carbon reduction can be achieved by extending the operation of existing nuclear power plants, filling growing country energy demands by using increasingly efficient nuclear reactor designs. With this knowledge, member states may choose to include new nuclear technologies in the updates of their NDCs. The Paris Agreement stipulates that NDCs will be progressively revised every five years starting from 2020.

Another side event on 19 September on “Nuclear High Temperature Heat for Industrial Processes” looked at the potential of non-electric applications of nuclear energy, including its techno-economic and socio-environmental aspects, Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy said: “Many member states with an active programme on nuclear power believe that non-electric applications of nuclear energy are the path for nuclear energy to penetrate the transportation and heat markets.” He noted that the IAEA “has implemented and will continue to implement various activities and tools to enable member states to develop and deploy high temperature reactors”. He added that the Agency supports member states in high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) development with publications, tools, meetings, coordinated research activities and technical cooperation projects.

Yulong Wu, General Manager of Chinergy Co, gave details about the construction of the first advanced High Temperature Gas-cooled Reactor, the HTR-PM in China, which uses nuclear fuel in the form of “pebbles”, spheres of uranium and plutonium. He said the reactor could drastically reduce air pollution and CO2 emissions by replacing a large number of China’s coal plants for industrial applications. It is scheduled for completion in late 2017.

Józef Sobolewski, Director of Nuclear Energy at the Polish Ministry of Energy said the use of an HTGR could reduce CO2 emissions in Poland by 14-17m tons a year. Poland plans to use an HTGR to provide heat for large chemical plants, which currently require more than 5m tons of natural gas/oil each year. “There is huge potential for nuclear high temperature heat for industrial applications in Poland as 100% of the heat market is dominated by fossil fuels,” he noted. Grzegorz Wrochna, from Poland’s National Centre for Nuclear Research, discussed multilateral initiatives within Europe towards the development of HTGRs, including the PRIME initiative, a Polish partnership with the US, Europe, South Korea and Japan for the development of process heat applications using HTGRs.

Xing Yan of the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency (JAEC) said  JAEC’s work with the High-Temperature Test Reactor (HTTR) had demonstrated the feasibility of utilising nuclear high-temperature heat for a variety of industrial applications, including seawater desalination and hydrogen production, among others. Donald Hoffman, Chairman and CEO of the US-based Next Generation Nuclear Plant Alliance, talked about prospects for HTGRs in the USA as well as potential challenges to their deployment such as low fossil fuel prices. “Innovative solutions will be necessary to address global problems.

Photo: IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano at the side event 'Nuclear Energy Innovation and the Paris Agreement'. (Photo: D. Popovich/IAEA)