Fuel & fuel cycle
INPRO leaps into action27 May 2009
Although US domestic research for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) has been cancelled, nuclear fuel cycle research is continuing within an IAEA programme, which has a new action plan. By Judith Perera
The International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO) has adopted a new action plan for 2010-2011. An initiative of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), INPRO is a forum for discussion and cooperation on the development and deployment of sustainable innovative nuclear energy systems (INS) in the 21st century and beyond.
Over the coming five decades, energy supply scenarios are expected to change, based on increasingly limited fossil fuel supplies and climate change. New applications for nuclear power, such as hydrogen production and seawater desalination are expected to become increasingly important.
INPRO, which spans this period, assesses innovative nuclear systems and technologies, including fuel cycle facilities and reactors. It considers all areas that could impact sustainable development, such as economic competitiveness, environmental aspects, infrastructure, security and physical protection, proliferation resistance, safety and waste management.
Currently 28 countries are members of the project, with another 11 participating at a working level, and others have expressed interest in joining. Recognised international organisations as well as IAEA member states can become members of INPRO provided they make a contribution to the project. Contributions can be in the form of donating extra-budgetary funds, providing cost-free experts, performing assessment studies using the INPRO methodology, or participating in INPRO collaborative projects.
Recently, Russia committed to providing a financial contribution of RUB23 million ($645,000) a year for five years. This provided a new stability to INPRO, which is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from its members, with only a small amount from the IAEA regular budget.
As of December last year, members of INPRO were Argentina, Armenia, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Morocco, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Russia, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, the USA and the European Commission (EC).
So far, INPRO methodology has been applied successfully to six national assessment studies in Argentina, Armenia, Brazil, India, South Korea and Ukraine. Joint studies of INS based on a closed fuel cycle and fast reactors have also been completed involving Canada, China, France, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Ukraine. The results of these studies will be published later this year.
“We continue to see a growing interest in nuclear power and in many international initiatives,” said Yuri Sokolov, INPRO manager and IAEA deputy director general.
As a result, international collaboration will be key to the future success of the project. “INPRO’s global vision and scenarios of nuclear power development and deployment will have to include analyses and implications of such initiatives, as well as many other technical and institutional innovations,” Sokolov added.
In reality, however, because the project is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions, the scope of the new programme will depend on availability of resources in 2010 and 2011.
Ray Sollychin, who is involved in the project, stressed how INPRO is important for the future of nuclear energy because it will depend on introducing new technologies. “Today new energy users still tend to favour fossil fuels for a number of reasons. The capital costs/kW of nuclear are higher. Although this is offset during operation by low fuel costs, nuclear plants are also much bigger – up to three times the size of a fossil fuel plant. This means initial outlay is much greater,” he said. The lack of skilled workers is also an obstacle. “Many skilled workers are nearing retirement and there will be a 15-year gap before new skilled workers enter the market.” Another drawback is that nuclear is currently only suitable for centralised electricity production, and there are the ongoing concerns about proliferation and public acceptance, he added.
Looking to the near future, the closed fuel cycle, which is vital for long-term nuclear use, is only suitable for established nuclear countries.
Sollychin believes that in the longer term, thorium fuel may be the answer. “But commercial companies will not look at innovative technologies – they will only look ahead 30 or 40 years – so we do need INPRO.” Vendors are now looking at evolutionary development, but this is very costly and affects the whole supply chain. However the commercial constraints of developers mean they are unlikely to spend on innovative designs.
Within INPRO’s four programme areas, the actual development of new technology is not currently being pushed because it is not considered IAEA business. “However, it may be possible to organise such activities outside, but in close co-operation with, the agency,” he suggested.
One possible collaborator could be the International Science and Technology Centre (ISTC) in Moscow. ISTC was founded in 1992 as a result of an international treaty signed by the European Union (EU), Japan, the USA and Russia to give scientists and engineers formerly active in the military-industrial sector in former Soviet states opportunities for employment and international cooperation in the civilian sector. “While its original remit is not longer really relevant, it holds important resources which could be used,” Sollychin added.
INPRO steering committee member Alex Burkart of the US state department said: “The US wants to see INPRO work in close cooperation with other international initiatives such as the Generation IV International Forum (GIF), the Global Nuclear Energy Programme (GNEP) and the European Sustainable Nuclear Energy Platform (SNETP) to ensure a good synergy and avoid duplication of effort among all the initiatives.”
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INPRO's Vladimir Usanov says the focus of GAINS is to draw up a framework for the development of nuclear power strategies. Many countries want to understand the global framework. We are developing a heterogenous model of the world, he explains. The project focuses on three groups of countries: those with a closed fuel cycle, those with regular nuclear programmes and newcomers. It looks at the scenarios and systems that can be used in each group and the next step will be to organise case studies within each group. For instance, Ukraine would like to understand how it can move to fuel fabrication and what it should do in the long term to enhance sustainability features of its nuclear power programme. At present it has nuclear power but no fuel cycle, says Usanov.
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