New consortium to develop and globally deploy lead-cooled fast reactors

10 November 2023

Belgium, Italy and Romania have formed a consortium with US-based Westinghouse Electric to develop a small modular lead-cooled fast neutron reactor (SMR-LFR). Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in the presence of Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, who was on an official visit to Brussels, and representatives from the Italian and US embassies in Belgium. The organisations taking part in the project, along with Westinghouse, are: Italy’s Ansaldo Nucleare and National Agency for New Technologies, Energy & Sustainable Economic Development ENEA (Agenzia nazionale per le nuove tecnologie, l'energia e lo sviluppo economico sostenibile); Romanian Atomic Energy Technology Company RATEN (Regia Autonoma Tehnologii pentru Energia Nucleara); and Belgian nuclear research centre SCK CEN.

“A year and a half ago, we took the strategic decision to accelerate our energy transition… by investing massively in offshore energy, hydrogen infrastructure, but also the nuclear power of the future,” said de Croo. “We decided to do this by drawing on the expertise developed in Belgium, and by allocating $100m ($106.8m) to the research and development of small modular reactors,” he added.

The agreement provides the basis for negotiations on a future cooperation agreement to accelerate the development of SMR-LFR. “The technology needs to be developed to a level that allows the commercialisation of reactors that are more secure, economically competitive and contribute to the transition to a clean energy system,” Romania’s Presidential Office noted. "The phased demonstration of the LFR technology will require the construction and operation of experimental support facilities and demonstration reactors,” the Presidential Administration said.

The new MOU is just the latest stage in joint research, which has been underway for more than 10 years. Ansaldo Nucleare coordinated Euratom’s project ELSY (European Lead cooled SYstem) from its start in 2006. The goal was to develop an innovative pre-conceptual design of an industrial lead-cooled fast reactor for electricity production based on a closed fuel cycle. Following ELSY’s completion (2010), in the frame of EU 7th framework programme, Ansaldo became the leading organisation and coordinator of the LEADER project (Lead-cooled European Advanced DEmonstration Reactor). The LEADER project aimed to develop a conceptual design of a Lead Fast Reactor Industrial size plant (the European LFR – ELFR) and of a scaled demonstrator of the LFR technology called ALFRED (Advanced Lead Fast Reactor European Demonstrator).

In 2019, Romanian utility Nuclearelectrica signed a MOU with the Fostering ALfred CONstruction (FALCON) consortium for cooperation on ALFRED, which was planned for construction in Romania. FALCON had been established in 2013, comprising ENEA and Ansaldo Nucleare, as well as Romania's RATEN-ICN, and later CV-Rez. In 2017, the consortium members decided to   renew  the consortium, reaffirming their objectives.

A 300 MWt demonstration ALFRED unit is expected to be built at RATEN-ICN's facility in Mioveni, near Pitesti in southern Romania, where a fuel manufacturing plant supplies fuel for Romania’s Cernavoda NPP. ALFRED is to prepare the way for a 300-400 MWe industrial demonstration unit, featuring passive safety systems, which will use mixed-oxide (mox) fuel and operate at temperatures of around 550°C. The total cost of the project was estimated at some €1.0bn.

Ansaldo Nucleare led the conceptual design of ALFRED as part of the seventh Euratom framework programme. ENEA was responsible for the core design, technological development and safety analyses. The reactor was being developed through the European Sustainable Nuclear Industrial Initiative (ESNII), as part of the EU's Strategic Energy Technology Plan. ESNII was set up under the Sustainable Nuclear Energy Technology Platform, formed in 2007.

In 2021, consortium comprising Ansaldo Nucleare and Reinvent Energy (Romania) was awarded a contract worth around €20m for the design, procurement, installation and commissioning of the Advanced Thermo-Hydraulics Experiment for Nuclear Application (ATHENA) experimental plant – a research facility for the development of lead-cooled reactors. ATHENA will be built at RATEN-ICN’s Pitesti research centre and will include a 2.21 MWt pool-type plant housing 880 tonnes of liquid lead in a main vessel (3m in diameter by 10m in height). This facility will also house scale components for testing and demonstration of technology for LFR reactors.

The consortium is supported by ENEA and Italian engineering company SRS for the conceptual and executive design of the technological part, as well as by Romania’s Ispe and Somet (for the design of civil works and installation. The project involves the construction of an electrical core simulator, a main pump and a heat exchanger similar to the arrangement of the ALFRED system.

In October 2022, Westinghouse and Ansaldo Nucleare signed a cooperation agreement to develop a next-generation NPP based on LFR technology. The two companies will advance a common design to maximise synergies, combine experience in design, testing and licensing, and align respective partner and supply chain organisations. Westinghouse said the agreement builds upon development activities already underway in the UK, USA, Italy, and Romania, where more than ten state-of-the-art, lead-based test facilities are being installed.

In May, Ansaldo Nucleare and Westinghouse said initial testing had been completed for their LFR design at the Passive Heat Removal Facility recently built at the Ansaldo Nuclear plant in Wolverhampton (UK). The work was performed under a contract within Phase 2 of the Advanced Modular Reactor (AMR) programme partially funded by the UK Government's Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Under this contract, Ansaldo Nucleare led the design, purchase, installation and commissioning of two experimental facilities -the Versatile Loop Facility (VLF) and the Passive Heat Removal Facility (PHRF), which will collect experimental data supporting accelerated development of LFR technology.

The £10m ($12.5m) UK government investment will enable Westinghouse to test the feasibility of key LFR materials, systems and components. The VLF will test a fuel pin bundle simulator, a compact heat exchanger and a coolant pump, resembling those that will be installed in the reactor coolant system. The PHRF will characterise the passive decay heat removal system of the Westinghouse LFR, producing experimental data for the qualification of computer codes devoted to performance assessment.

Last year, the Belgian government entrusted the task of identifying innovative SMRs to SCK CEN, as well as the search for suitable partners to develop lead-cooled fast SMRs. The newly established collaboration outlined a way forward, based on a gradual approach through demonstration phases. This will start with a small reactor to demonstrate the technological and engineering aspects of commercial SMR-LFR at SCK CEN’s Mol site in Belgium by 2035-2040.

In the meantime, the group will work towards the next development phase, namely the construction of ALFRED in Pite?ti, focusing on the technical and economic feasibility of future commercial SMRs. This will exploit and expand the work done in the last 10 years to achieve this goal by Ansaldo Nucleare, ENEA and RATEN within the FALCON consortium. The Lead-cooled Fast Reactor project being developed by Westinghouse will be the starting point for this project, aimed at its global marketing. The agreement signed by SCK CEN with Ansaldo Nucleare, ENEA, RATEN and Westinghouse is “the first milestone in this strategy, a solid foundation on which we will continue to build," said Alexander De Croo.

Currently all these projects are still in the conceptual and design stages with testing only taking place on non-nuclear components. To date, the only operating liquid metal-cooled fast reactors are in Russia, using sodium as the coolant. Russia is also constructing the world’s first lead-cooled small modular reactor (Brest-OD-300) in Seversk as part of a facility to demonstrate an on-site closed fuel cycle, including novel fuel fabrication. This reactor, based on decades of complex research and development, and supported by the entire Russian nuclear industry, is due to begin operation in 2029.

Image: Signing of the MoU (courtesy of SCK-CEN)

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