They were the first to split the atom, and opened the world's first commercial reactor at Calder Hall in 1956. Now, there is a renewed interest in civil nuclear research, based on new generation reactor designs. With a lack of vested interests and a principle-based regulatory the UK has an opportunity to innovate in thorium based nuclear energy.
This can prove to be a competitive advantage in bringing new technologies to the market, as opposed to stricter regulatory systems in many other Western countries.
A UK team is participating in an international project, initiated by the US Department of Energy, aiming to design a power plant called Integral Inherently Safe Light Water Reactor (I2S-LWR) – a power plant with reduced size and enhanced safety compared to conventional power plants.
The team at the University of Cambridge is exploring whether the element thorium could help to meet the new design's fuel needs. The team will assess the question not just from the perspective of fundamental nuclear reactor physics but also in terms of the scope to achieve high fuel-to-power conversion efficiency and to recycle spent nuclear fuel – key issues impacting the cost-effectiveness of the thorium fuel option. ’If all goes to plan, construction of the first I2S-LWRs could begin in around 10 years, making deployment of nuclear power more practical, more cost-effective and more publicly acceptable worldwide’, says Dr Geoff Parks, leader of the Cambridge team.
The UK has a long history in nuclear research; they were the first to split the atom (at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge in 1932), and opened the world's first commercial reactor at Calder Hall in 1956. Now, there is a renewed interest in civil nuclear research, based on new generation reactor designs. In addition to the Cambridge research project, the UK government is supporting a feasibility study on molten salt reactors and the startup Moltex is in the process to design a prototype of its molten salt reactor. The Moltex reactor can feed off low-grade spent uranium, cleaning up toxic waste in the process. Thereafter the plant could be redesigned to use thorium, a cleaner fuel.
Since UK has few vested interests and a “principles-based” regulatory process, innovation and fast approval of new technologies in the nuclear industry presents an opportunity. This can prove to be a competitive advantage in bringing new technologies to the market, as opposed to stricter regulatory systems in many other Western countries. This could enable UK to follow the example of India and China in the commercialization efforts of new reactor designs.