HIGH temperature gas nuclear reactors (HTGRs) could provide low-carbon process heat to help decarbonise heavy industry, under new plans outlined by the UK Government.
The Government is consulting on its plans to invest £170m (US$236m) to demonstrate HTGR technology by the early 2030s. The objective of the programme is to show that advanced modular reactors (AMRs) could produce high temperature heat. This could provide a more sustainable form of process heat for the likes of chemical, glass and cement production, rather than burning fossil fuels such as natural gas. The reactors are smaller than those currently used at conventional nuclear plants so could be used for regional or industrial purposes including producing lower-carbon hydrogen, feeding district heating schemes, and producing baseload power to balance out renewables intermittency.
Among six forms of AMR technologies, the Government is asking for feedback on whether it should prioritise the development of HTGRs that produce temperatures of 700–900°C and use helium for coolant. While there are no commercial HTGRs in operation currently, development work is under way in China, Europe, Japan and the US; and the UK operated a test HTGR called Dragon which supplied power to the grid between 1965–1976.
In July 2020 the Government awarded £10m to U-Battery to speed up its development of a HTGR design. The National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) subsequently expanded its cooperation agreement with the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), which is working with U-Battery, to include HTGR. JAEA has been operating a test HTGR at Oarai, Japan since 1999 and has included research into producing hydrogen.
Reacting to the news of the consultation on HTGRs, Paul Howarth, CEO of the National Nuclear Laboratory, said: “With over 50 years’ experience of operating the world’s only commercial fleet of gas-cooled nuclear reactors, as well as sodium [-cooled] fast, steam generating heavy water, and light water reactors, the UK uniquely boasts the skills, talent and capability to deliver advanced nuclear technologies and the entire supply chain that enables them.”
The Government has also announced that the NNL will pilot an Advanced Nuclear Skills and Innovation Campus in Preston that will bring together industry and academia to collaborate on developing and commercialising nuclear technologies.
Dame Sue Ion, a Fellow at the Royal Academy of Engineering, who has held numerous leadership roles related to the nuclear industry, said: “This proposal is extremely welcome news and demonstrates the tremendous potential of advanced nuclear power, which could be expanded safely to improve the overall efficiency of our energy system, but also help decarbonise difficult-to-help heavy industry, to help meet the UK’s net zero goal.
“This advanced modular reactor demonstration plays to the UK strengths in nuclear fuel and gas-cooled reactors in building a technology platform for HTGRs for the UK to exploit and potentially export internationally.”
The consultation closes on 9 September. It follows a series of reports in recent years on the role of nuclear in helping achieve net zero. These include a 2020 paper from the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board (NIRAB), which concluded that HTGR is the technology most likely to be developed in the timescale required. This view was echoed in a report published earlier this year by the University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute. Last year, the Royal Society said that HTGRs could provide a form of energy storage. It said that while renewables are meeting power demand, HTGRs could switch to producing heat which could feed steam reforming, Haber-Bosch and Fischer-Tropsch processes to produce hydrogen, ammonia, and synthetic fuels.
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