UK nuclear trade association, the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) has applied for a justification decision for newcleo’s lead-cooled fast reactor design, the LFR-AS-200. The application makes the case that the benefits of clean, firm, flexible power from the LFR-AS-200 would far outweigh any potential risks. NIA says these are” rigorously controlled by robust safety features, including passive safety systems, built into the design and incorporated into the operating arrangements, in line with the UK’s regulatory requirements”.

The application also argues that the reactor design would support nuclear energy’s contribution to a stable and well-balanced electricity grid, which is essential to reduce consumer bills and maintain economic competitiveness.

Justification is a regulatory process which requires a government decision before any new class or type of practice involving ionising radiation can be introduced in the UK. A justification decision is one of the required steps for the operation of a new nuclear technology in the UK, but it is not a permit or licence that allows a specific project to go ahead. It is a generic decision based on a high-level evaluation of the potential benefits and detriments of the proposed new nuclear practice as a pre-cursor to future regulatory processes.

This is the first ever application for justification of an advanced nuclear technology in the UK. The government has confirmed that the application has been accepted for consideration, and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) will support the Secretary of State in their role as the justifying authority responsible for the justification decision.

NIA CEO Tom Greatrex said advanced reactors such as newcleo’s design “have enormous potential to support the UK’s energy security and net zero transition, so we were delighted to apply for this decision”. He added: “This is an opportunity for the UK Government to demonstrate that it backs advanced nuclear technologies to support a robust clean power mix and to reinvigorate the UK’s proud tradition of nuclear innovation. We look forward to engaging with the Government and the public throughout this process and to further applications for new nuclear designs in the future.”

Stefano Buono, newcleo CEO said this was “an important milestone in our development programme and a vital step forward in our delivery plan for the UK”. He added: “We continue to progress our UK plans at pace – aiming to deliver our first of a kind commercial reactor in the UK by 2033. We are but one player in the new nuclear renaissance and we look forward to working with government and the rest of the sector to develop the robust supply chain that can deliver the UK’s ambition of 24GW of nuclear power by 2050.”

The Justification of Practices Involving Ionising Radiation Regulations 2004 require that any new practice that produces ionising radiation is justified by an evaluation of the potential benefits and the potential detriments. Defra will now conduct a process of internal review and consultation with a number of statutory consultees. NIA previously applied for justification decisions for the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) designed by Hitachi, the Advanced Passive 1000 (AP1000) reactor designed by Westinghouse and the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) designed by AREVA (now Framatome).

Our objective is to quickly deliver a versatile solution at a competitive cost. This is why we are designing two Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), enabling plant manufacturing and reducing costs: they are 30MWe and 200MWe, a relatively small power compared to conventional nuclear power plants (1000MWe average). The 30MWe can swiftly meet the commercial demand for small electric generating units, such as for islands, remote communities, or to power large vessels (shipping propulsion). The 200MWe can be an economically competitive solution for central station power plants.

The newcleo website now includes a mock-up of its reactor design and some additional technical information. Newcleo says it relies o more than 20 years’ experience on lead technology, based on an agreement with Italy’s ENEA. “Our agreement with them includes a newcleo team of engineers, who will work permanently for about 10 years at ENEA Brasimone Centre,” the website notes.

Newcleo says it “works in partnership with top level research institutions, including ENEA, Politecnico di Milano, Politecnico di Torino” and is also “signing MOU agreements with international industry players” It adds: “We are holding constructive conversations with high-ranking government representatives in the UK and France to explore the best options and locations to develop our project”.

The first step of its delivery roadmap will be “the design and construction of the first-of-a-kind 30 MWe lead-cooled fast reactor to be deployed in France by 2030, followed by a 200 MWe commercial unit in the UK by 2033”. The timeline it lays out is:

  • 2026 – Our non-nuclear electrically-heated prototype will allow us to test our solutions for the well-known challenges related to liquid metal and in particular lead, to be built at the ENEA-Brasimone site, Italy.
  • 2030 – the S-30 Lead-cooled Fast Reactor (LFR), a 30 MWe test reactor and demonstrator, to be built in France, will enable progressive licensing of our technical innovations.
  • 2032 – the first AS-200 LFR commercial unit (First Of A Kind – FOAK) will be deployed in the UK, a terrestrial waste-to-energy reactor exploiting the capacity of LFR reactors to close the fuel cycle, and produce energy.
  • 2032 – will also see the TL-30 Lead-cooled Fast Reactor, a mini reactor, producing 30 MWe and requiring infrequent refuelling (more than 10 years) and maintenance: a nuclear battery that can be easily replaced at end of life. It can also be used for maritime applications.
  • Long-term – All the previous steps and designs serve a further goal: to design and commercialise the Accelerator Driven System (ADS), a concept proposed by Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia. This consists of a subcritical (not self-sustained) LFR coupled with a particle accelerator, enabling a thorium-based fuel cycle and the ultimate conditions for complete safety.

At the same time, Newcleo says it will directly invest in a mixed uranium/plutonium oxide (mox) plant to fuel its reactors. In June 2022, Newcleo announced it had contracted France's Orano for feasibility studies on the establishment of a mox production plant. Its mid-term strategy is to establish mox fuel manufacturing in developed countries.

Newcleo says since its launch in 2021 it is “actively pursuing a targeted acquisition strategy that will incorporate key companies with strong capabilities in nuclear engineering, manufacturing and waste management. Newcleo “intends to expand existing skills and services, supporting its development programme with investments” and says “acquired businesses will become integral to newcleo’s plans, developing and delivering crucial services for our projects’ deployment.

The website mentions in particular Italy’s SRS Servizi Ricerche e Sviluppo (SRS), technology company Fucina Italia, shipbuilding company Fincantieri, and inspection and certification company RINA as well as the pump and engineering Rütschi Group. However, these are only a few of the very long list of acquisitions and agreements undertaken since the company was established.

SRS is a chemical petrochemical engineering company with nuclear fuel cycle experience “having already been involved in 24 LFR projects, becoming the world leader in reactor lead cooling technology”. According to the SRS website, these projects include France’s Superphénix reactor; the European fast reactor (EFR) project; the European sodium-cooled fast reactor – smart (ESFR-SMART), France’s ASTRID; the European Lead Fast Reactor under the ELSY (European Lead SYstem) project; the EU’s Advanced Lead Fast Reactor European Demonstrator (ALFRED) conceptual design; and the Generation IV International Forum’s LFR.

However, Superphénix which operated from 1986-1996 was closed in face of protests and technical problems. Plans to construct Astrid were cancelled in 2019. Moreover, both these projects were sodium-cooled not lead cooled fast reactors. The other projects mentioned were simply conceptual designs.

Newcleo says its mission “is to generate safe, clean, economic and practically inexhaustible energy for the world, through a radically innovative combination of existing, accessible technologies”. It claims to “capitalise on 30 years of R&D activity in metal-cooled fast reactors and liquid-lead cooling systems. Newcleo says its reactor design “has been optimised over the last 20 years leading to the concept of an ultra-compact and transportable 200 MWe module with improvements in energy density compared to other technologies”.

Currently, however, 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. As yet, despite its rapidly growing list of acquisitions and co-operation agreements and optimistic timeline, newcleo’s technology remains in the very early conceptual design stage.

Image: Cutaway of the TL-30 reactor (courtesy of newcleo)