While nuclear power is generally regarded as safe, the industry continues to grapple with criticism of its safety and cleanliness, and justifies why even more investment should be made in the sector during the energy transition. own.
When setting out their national policies and plans to tackle emissions before the expiry of the Paris Agreement of 2050, many countries in Europe, Middle East, Asia and Central and South America have adopted nuclear power as a viable option to phase out fossil fuels.
With nuclear being reliable and relatively clean compared to other established sources, countries like the UK are ramping up its use and predicting nuclear will contribute around 40-50% of the energy mix by 2050, up from nearly 20. % today.
For this reason, greater efforts are being invested in the safer production of nuclear energy, the treatment of its waste and the safety of operational workers employed in the industry.
How is the industry evolving?
After having suffered some major incidents at the end of the 20e A century that still fuels nuclear skepticism, the industry is working hard to revolutionize its work, offering better surveillance, increased security, and “smarter than harder” work strategies.
For example, the sodium-cooled reactor currently under development in Fujian Province, China, is expected to finally be grid-connected by 2023. This means around six decades after the concept of a fast neutron reactor began in China. .
The reactor designs planned under development will require input energy of 1500MWt, with electricity production capacity of 600MWe. They will also have a thermal efficiency of 41% and two sodium cooling loops producing steam at 480 ° C.
With an average operational life of 40 years, this design features active and passive shutdown systems and passive waste heat removal which ensures that in the event of loss of coolant flow rate, the reactor will be able to stop safely without intervention.
Likewise, the American company TerraPower has worked on a sodium-cooled nuclear system that can be powered by spent fuel, depleted uranium, or uranium straight out of the ground.
Their natrium nuclear power plant project stands out with more advantages than the light water reactor plants in use today. The Natrium plant uses a sodium-cooled fast reactor as the heat source, with the heat from the reactor being transported by molten salt from inside the nuclear island to heat the storage tanks outside the reactor. It can then be used to generate electricity or for other industrial processes.
The first set of these commercial plants will operate on high dosage low enriched uranium and the natrium plants will not need reprocessing, as well as on a once-through fuel cycle.
The technology will reduce the volume of waste per megawatt hour of energy produced by five times, without reprocessing due to the efficient use of fuel.
TerraPower eventually plans to build an advanced 345MWe reactor demonstration program with an integrated energy storage system and to market subsequent commercial reactors of similar design and size.
Small modular reactors and advanced nuclear technologies
After the UK government presented its’ green recovery ‘plans in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is supported by the’10-point plan for a green industrial revolution‘, the country has once again turned to viable and diversified energy assets to provide reliable and affordable electricity.
As part of this discussion, the UK has adopted an approach to small modular reactors (SMR), which are created to provide safer and cleaner energy but in a more predictable and focused approach compared to options such as wind and solar.
“SMRs are essential for the development of safe and clean nuclear power options. By making construction more efficient and using existing mature technologies, it means that nuclear power should be able to be adopted as a cost-effective option, ”said Cyrus Larijani, head of strategic business development for space and nuclear at the Laboratory. National Physics.
For example, Rolls Royce is leading a UK consortium to develop an affordable power plant that generates electricity using SMR to help reduce costs, while incorporating multiple layers of failure prevention to ensure the technology is safe in all modes of operation.
Another area closely associated with the improvement of nuclear energy is the area of advanced nuclear technologies, where advanced high temperature reactors could be used to produce hydrogen. This involves using the heat from the reactor to directly drive processes such as the thermal decomposition of water.
“However, these technologies are not yet proven and this is where organizations can play a role, providing the metrology expertise necessary to establish the technology and enable its deployment. This process takes time and it is imperative that the UK as a whole acts quickly, with research laboratories, industry and universities working together to achieve this shared vision, ”said Larijani.
To help solve these problems, companies specializing in this field can also use digital image correlation technologies to perform regular inspections, neutron measurements, temperature measurements, gas metrology, and materials testing and evaluations. to support the national and global challenge of clean energy transition.
The use of robotic technologies
The dismantling of redundant nuclear sites and the extension of the life of existing infrastructures in the sector being another major issue requiring greater attention, manufacturers have concentrated their efforts on the integration of robotics.
Chris Froud, senior partner and patent attorney in the electronics, IT and physics group of European intellectual property company Withers & Rogers, says: “A lot of dismantling jobs are still being done by humans. However, nuclear environments are generally inhospitable to humans, either because they are radioactive or physically difficult to access. As a result, workers have to wear multi-layered, air-fed coveralls when trying to use heavy tools – it can be dangerous, tiring and ineffective.
“Even working in this way, there is still a considerable amount of high-level radioactive waste that humans cannot come into contact with, which must be treated remotely. ”
In a recent development, the Swiss drone company Flyability has just launched an indoor drone aimed at helping workers at nuclear facilities be better protected against low levels of radiation exposure.
The drone is equipped with a radiation sensor to perform inspections in nuclear facilities, and is also designed to be collision tolerant so that the technology can also be used for inspection in dark and confined spaces where crashing is much more likely.
Used in such hazardous environments, robots could reduce human exposure to danger and increase efficiency and safety while reducing operating costs.
However, once triggered, the flow of innovation knows no boundaries.
Froud says, “Some current research programs are exploring whether machine learning could be used to enable robots to pick and place items at random in logistics spaces or on production lines.
“By using similar technology, it may be possible to reuse solutions for the nuclear industry. Techniques could also be adopted by other industries that are already actively exploring remote robotic solutions, such as telesurgery. “
While technologies developed for applications in other industries will need to be adapted to meet the unique challenges of the nuclear industry, for example to cope with high levels of radiation, Froud also stresses the possibility of transferring the technology developed for the nuclear sector in other extreme areas. environments.
In summary, the global nuclear energy scene is investing considerable effort and capital to help make the energy source a stable ally during the clean energy transition. It remains to be seen whether the efforts of this sector to integrate innovative techniques and optimize its work will be appreciated and whether nuclear power will be able to successfully tackle the stigma attached to it.