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Renewed energy and enhanced coordination are on the horizon for an international collaborative that is advancing new, safer nuclear energy systems.

By Dr. John E. Kelly
Former Chief Technology Officer, Office of Nuclear Energy

Nuclear power reactors currently under construction worldwide boast modern safety and operational enhancements that were designed by the global nuclear energy industry and enhanced through research and development (R&D) by the U.S. Department of Energy and its international counterparts. Today, experts around the world are collaborating to further advance nuclear technology to meet future energy needs.

Developing the next generation of nuclear reactor technology is an ambitious goal, even for countries with large-scale nuclear energy research programs. That's why the U.S. has been working with international partners to coordinate efforts, resources and schedules to achieve success.

The Generation IV International Forum (GIF) was established to address key technical issues associated with designing, building and operating next-generation nuclear energy systems. The Generation-IV designs will use fuel more efficiently, reduce waste production, be economically competitive and meet stringent standards of safety and proliferation resistance.

Some of these revolutionary designs could be demonstrated within the next decade, with commercial deployment beginning in the 2030s.

GIF includes 12 member countries and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), evolving from nine original member countries who signed the GIF charter in July 2001. These nine members, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Republic of South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States, were later joined by Switzerland, Euratom, the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation to form the current 13 member forum.

For more than a decade, GIF has led international collaborative efforts to develop next-generation nuclear energy systems that can help meet the world's future energy needs. The advanced systems are designed to meet four overarching goals: sustainability, safety and reliability, economic competitiveness, and proliferation resistance/physical protection. More specifically, our goals for these Generation IV reactor systems are to do the following:

  • Provide sustainable energy generation that meets clean energy objectives, promotes long-term availability of systems and utilizes fuel more effectively
  • Minimize nuclear waste and reduce long-term stewardship burden
  • Excel in safety and reliability
  • Have a very low likelihood and degree of reactor core damage in the case of an accident
  • Greatly reduce the need for offsite emergency response
  • Have a life cycle cost advantage over other energy sources
  • Have a level of financial risk comparable to other energy projects
  • Be a very unattractive route for diversion or theft of weapon-usable materials
  • Provide increased physical protection against acts of terrorism

With these goals in mind, some 100 experts evaluated 130 reactor concepts before GIF selected six reactor technologies for further research and development. Five of the designs recycle fissionable material and produce less nuclear waste. Four designs co-generate heat that could be used for industrial processes such as seawater desalination or plastics production. 

Today, China has begun construction of a prototype Generation-IV reactor, and both France and Russia are developing advanced sodium fast reactor designs for near-team demonstration. Prototype lead fast reactors are expected to be built in Russia and Europe in the 2020 timeframe.

As the current GIF chair, I believe the organization is poised for a period of enhanced collaboration, communication, and student involvement. During a meeting next week in Beijing, China, I expect the GIF governing body to approve a new strategic plan — the first in a decade — and begin its implementation.

The plan outlines how GIF will enhance R&D collaboration and optimize coordination with other international research and regulatory entities among GIF members. The plan also includes an updated technology roadmap, which assesses the status and future plans of each next-generation nuclear system under development by GIF members.

Watch for updates from next week's meeting and learn more about GIF at the Generation IV International Forum website.