A Zero Power Experimental Facility as First Step into a New Technology
All scenarios for a future net-zero society have a nuclear component. However, current reactors and their related fuel cycles suffer from high cost, a lack of long-term sustainability, and a waste problem due to the absence of recycling. New, innovative technologies like iMAGINE will be required to overcome these problems by delivering affordable long-term energy security, while allowing high temperature heat and electricity production from waste. This cutting-edge, world leading technology will allow to create attractive, long term worldwide future market opportunities for UK industry.
However, the development of new, innovative nuclear technologies is often a costly and time-consuming high-risk endeavour. Thus, the core aim has to be to de-risk the development to avoid extensive losses in time and financial resources in large-scale projects. To assure an effective, time and cost-efficient programme, a stepwise process for the development of an innovative nuclear system has been developed. The zero power facility is the first, absolutely essential, step into iMAGINE. Core of this developed process is to stepwise grow capabilities and capacities for each following step in a smaller scale project to qualify subject matter experts for development and delivery of the required technologies. This will allow to gain experience in reduced complexity systems to avoid costly and time-consuming mistakes in expensive large-scale projects.
A zero-power experiment is the essential first step to research a game-changing technology in a safe setting, to advance knowledge, capabilities and capacities required to grow the skills base. Key advantage is the relatively low cost (max. £50m), low risk (small and relatively simple), and the quick response (<5 years) of this reduced complexity project for efficient preparation and learning. The experiment aims at improving simulation and demonstrating innovative safety features. It will allow a qualified response to regulatory requests and will provide the urgently needed skilled workforce. A zero-power facility serves on many levels, from manufacturing (designing, licensing, constructing, commissioning, and operation of a new reactor), through the experiment (upskilling experts for an experimental program), to taking a scientific leadership role (being recognized as scientific super power for advanced reactors). Initially, it would be developed to pursue iMAGINE, but it is a reusable infrastructure which can easily be repurposed for education and delivering experiments for other reactor studies later, as shown in the Venus facility in Belgium. The design and licensing will involve the regulator into a new technology, while the facility will bring researchers and industrial players from other places to the UK through creating and applying new highly innovative technologies.
Following the recognition of the BEIS MSAG as well as academic funders, the next challenge is to form a consortium in a preparation project involving a potential operator, a site holder, a fuel producer (a business opportunity itself), a design and manufacturing supplier, and a scientific advisor for design and experimental program. The consortium should be sufficiently broad to develop and deliver the facility while upskilling the urgently required specialists. The long lead time for innovative reactor systems to market as well as the Russian decision to build a zero-power experiment for their molten salt reactor programme demonstrate the urgency for acting now to be able to deliver a demonstrator Advanced Modular Reactor (AMR) by the early 2030s. Currently, the UK is in a leading position due to the high innovation level of iMAGINE which we should leverage now, for our own advantage.