LONDON (Reuters) - Europe should seize the chance to develop a new generation of “plug and play” micro nuclear reactors that could compete with wind farms as a safe, low-carbon energy source, the head of nuclear fuel firm Urenco said.
Otherwise it may end up having to import the small factory-built reactors of the future that will cost a fraction of full-scale plants and be much easier to operate, Urenco Chief Executive Helmut Engelbrecht said.
The micro reactors, for which an initial design has been produced by Dutch and British universities, would have a capacity of 5-10 megawatts and cost less than $100 million, compared with major projects that come in at over 1,000 MW and cost many billions of dollars.
A capacity of 5 MW is generally estimated to serve around 2,500 homes in European or U.S. cities.
“There is a challenge for the nuclear industry to see whether we can come up with a plug-and-play device that is foolproof, inherently safe, and not too complex to be positioned in countries that have an increasing demand for electricity.”
While fast-growing countries like China and India can cope with the huge cost and infrastructure demands of large reactors, smaller emerging countries need a cheaper and easier solution.
Smaller reactors are already being developed in countries such as the United States and Russia, at 200-400 MW, but these would be too complex for many developing nations, he said.
Engelbrecht is seeking support from European governments and industry to build a prototype based on a study commissioned by Urenco, the world’s second biggest producer of nuclear fuel, which is jointly owned by the British and Dutch governments and two German utilities.
The study, by Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and Manchester University in Britain, designed the “U-Battery” micro reactor based on high temperature reactor (HTR) technology already available in Europe.
“Europe is still the biggest nuclear operator in the world. It has the most diverse experience,” said Engelbrecht, a German who has a PhD in nuclear technology.
“If Europe doesn’t do anything at all, I’m afraid we’ll be importing these devices in 30 years from China and India and will have lost our know-how to do something ourselves.”
Micro reactors could also find demand in industrialised countries where companies are shy of large capital commitments.
In Britain, Centrica recently withdrew from plans to build four new nuclear power stations, the fourth utility to pull the plug on investing in new UK plants since mid-2011 after costs spiralled.
While Japan’s Fukushima disaster in March 2011 aroused fresh concern over the safety of nuclear power and spurred Germany to shut its nuclear plants, it has also led to more interest in smaller reactors, Engelbrecht said.
Key advantages of the U-Battery micro reactor are that it would be self-contained, need minimal human intervention and designed not to melt down in case of a sudden shutdown.
“This thing is designed so that if something breaks, you don’t need to do anything (in terms of emergency response). It won’t work again until somebody comes and fixes it. It’s like a windmill,” Engelbrecht said.
Its use of a combination of uranium and thorium fuel means it would pose less risk of nuclear arms proliferation, he added.
The project would need a huge change in regulation, allowing an overall licence for the design of the device, which would be built in factories, instead of the permissions for each individual reactor needed for big projects built on site.
“That is a major, major obstacle to overcome and definitely needs a lot of political support, which unfortunately is not very easy to get in Europe these days,” said Engelbrecht.
He is convinced micro reactors will be developed, probably within about 20 years, and is determined to pursue the project.
“You see that a nuclear device is driving the Mars robot, that a nuclear battery was sitting on the moon and operating for 40 years,” said Engelbrecht.
“Why the hell can’t we do it small on earth? This kind of discussion needs to be had and needs some political support.”
Reporting by Eric Onstad; Editing by Anthony Barker