ENC 2010: Conference highlights
30 May - 2 June 2010 in Barcelona, Spain
With about 730 registered participants and experts from more than 45 countries, the European Nuclear Conference ENC 2010 exceeded all expectations in terms of attendance. We noted with pleasure the participation of senior managers from industry, such as those representing General Electric, Westinghouse, Hitachi, AREVA, EDF, ROSATOM, TVO, IBERDROLA, SCANA, ENEL, etc…The conference also attracted many young professionals, either from the research community or from industry. The European Nuclear Education network ENEN made the most of the opportunity provided by ENC 2010 to organise its ENEN PhD event, with a special session devoted to presenting the PhD work of 8 graduate students from various European countries. Special mention should go here to Matteo Bucci from Pisa University, for his work on steam condensation in the presence of air and helium, and to Aurelia Chenu, from the Paul Scherrer Institute, for her work on neutronic-thermohydraulic coupling in sodium fast reactors.
The 450 papers submitted featured a very wide and heterogeneous range of subjects that covered research and industry-related topics. Selected papers will be published in a special issue of the Revue Générale Nucléaire, which will be edited by the French Nuclear Society.
General nuclear situation and policy
During the first day’s opening sessions top managers from the nuclear industry set a rather optimistic tone for the conference, emphasising that: new build projects are foreseen or under way in many countries; the safety record, availability factor and general behaviour of the existing fleet of light water reactors is good, providing an incentive for utilities to require and obtain from the safety authorities the authorisation to extend the operation time of their power plants.
According to many economic studies, notably a very detailed one from OECD, nuclear energy is economically competitive, even if no carbon penalty is applied to its competitors, coal or gas. However, the competitive advantage of nuclear energy is on the decrease, due to the re evaluation of the investment cost of Generation III new builds, and a (temporary?) lowering of gas prices.
Also remarked upon was the healthy competition that exists between some major nuclear reactor vendors, for the many new build projects in the pipeline. Could the ongoing economic crisis, added to the handicap of a capital intensive industry associated with long pay-back time constants, prove an obstacle to nuclear deployment? The constructors are definitely optimistic: “Crisis? What crisis?” they say. Could insufficient manpower be an obstacle to nuclear development? Here, the answer is less optimistic because of the real shortage of well-trained engineers and technicians. However, this gap will probably be filled soon thanks to the joint efforts of the academic community and of industry (see session on Education and Training).
Another cause for optimism is the recent disarmament treaty signed in the world. This was reflected in a talk entitled Nuclear non proliferation is not utopian, given by Pierre Goldschmidt, from the IAEA.
The positive tone of the conference also mirrored the favourable evolution of public opinion on nuclear energy that is apparent in many countries. Perhaps this has been further helped by the oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico? All these factors led some authors to say that it is time now to reconsider the eligibility of nuclear energy as a « Clean Development Mechanism », an important condition liable to boost its deployment in emerging countries
(see M. Lecomte’s talk).
Life extension and associated questions
The lifetime extension of the light water reactors is a general trend, even in « phase out countries ». However, material ageing (corrosion, irradiation embrittlement and swelling) must be kept under control if this long-term operation is to be authorised. Is the science of material ageing a completely mastered one? Huge progress in multi-scale material modelling has been made, but the beneficial consequences of this progress in terms of understanding are yet to be ascertained.
Standardisation, normalisation, modularisation
As shown in the talks given by several reactor builders, the benefits of modular construction in terms of cost and delay are already apparent in Generation III new builds. We noted the growing importance of the European Utility Requirements for promoting standardised designs, and for harmonising best practices in safety. Another important highlight of the conference was the growing international interest in small modular reactors, built and assembled in series and transported on site. T. Sanders explained why these reactors could be interesting for niche applications in countries requesting local power sources for cogeneration of electricity and heat. These reactors require large amounts of R&D. Where is Europe with this research?
The nuclear industry has displayed a very good safety record in the past, but the importance of harmonising national safety approaches has been stressed repeatedly (M. Lecomte) as a prerequisite for the global development of nuclear energy. The initiatives aimed at harmonisation are numerous. Some have been described in detail, e.g. WENRA’s work or that of the European Nuclear Safety Regulators’ Group ENSREG (see A. Stritar’s talk). Structures for developing common databases and independent analyses for incidents have also mushroomed, e.g. a clearing house, IAEA standards, codes and norms, OECD initiatives, WANO benchmarks.
With the anticipated rise of the price of natural uranium, fuel treatment and recycling is likely to become more and more attractive. It is still an option with the present LWR fleet, but it will soon become compulsory, because nuclear energy is not sustainable without fast reactors, which absolutely require it. Many separation options have already been demonstrated in a laboratory:
Grouped separation (COEX, a significant step towards non proliferation; GANEX for minor actinides)
Enhanced separation (DIAMEX, SANEX for minor actinides, ExAm for Americium)
Studies are also being carried out into recycling options in fast reactors (Should one recycle minor actinides and how?).
There has also been a noticeable renewed interest in the thorium fuel cycle.
Dismantling techniques and waste management
Interesting developments in dismantling technology were presented during the conference. Soon these could potentially save significant amounts of money incurred during dismantling, notably with communications on organic waste incineration, decontamination by wet oxidation, the pickling of metals and laser treatment.
Waste conditioning is also an area where progress is being made, e.g. there have been advances in vitrification technology (cold crucible, plasma vitrification), which were reported on during the conference.
Waste management activities worldwide show a contrasting picture. Whereas the prospect of starting up the Yucca Mountain facility in the US is fading fast, the success of the democratic process in Finland and Sweden has paved the way for future geological disposal in Europe. The idea of international repositories grouping the waste from several countries is being more and more openly discussed. This option, which would make sense from a technical point of view, poses difficult political and ethical problems, which were outlined by
ENC2010 was also provided an occasion to reassess quality communications towards the public, which are a prerequisite for gaining public acceptance and for the democratic decision-making process. The communications strategy adopted in the Netherlands by COVRA has been recognised as a source of inspiration for other countries (see Hans Codee’s talk).
Research reactors are presently experiencing a “medical isotope crisis”. The coincidence of technical problems affecting several isotope-producing reactors showed the fragility of the world’s medical isotope production structure. André Versteegh gave a detailed analysis of this isotope crisis and made a few proposals for solving it.
The fleet of research reactors is ageing worldwide, as the building of new facilities does not compensate for the closure of the older ones. The conference provided an opportunity to confirm that in the field of research reactors, national projects are history. International cooperation is what is needed now - to have a small but coherent fleet of modern research reactors, with at least one or two operating in Europe. That cooperation should focus on:
neutron sources for fundamental research
MTRs for materials testing and fuel qualification (e.g. JHR)
Reactors dedicated to safety studies
Reactors dedicated to education and training
Zero power reactors for validation of neutronics modelling and simulation
Reactors for isotope production (e.g. PALLAS)
Prototypes of new generation reactors (e.g. MYRRHA, ASTRID, ALLEGRO) for a maturing of Generation IV concepts
A fusion research reactor (ITER)
The author of this report noted with pleasure a very important quote from a CEO of a big nuclear company, who said: « A significant portion of the incremental cash flow of nuclear utilities should support financing new generation reactors ». Hopefully this advice can be transformed into reality! The nuclear renaissance, already observed in industry, has not yet reached the research laboratories. With generally small amounts of funding made available by states, the research that will determine the future of nuclear energy is becoming more and more left in the hands of the industry.
Most of the conference was devoted to fission, but the fusion community was represented with significant presentations, notably the one by C. Alejaldre, who explained not only the hopes associated with ITER but also the immense difficulties of making this big organisation work effectively.
A major bottleneck in the development of fusion energy is linked to materials, which must be able to withstand high temperatures, an aggressive plasma environment and high neutron flux. This problem is largely shared by the fission community. The conference enabled the considerable progress that has been accomplished recently in the multi-scale modelling of materials (see S. Dudarev’s and N. Castin’s talks) to be highlighted. We also noted the uncertainties associated with the building of the IFMIF neutron irradiation facility.
Nuclear applications in life sciences
The conference also assessed the continuous progress that has been made in the following areas:
Diagnostic tools, imaging and radiotracers, thanks to the development of hybrid techniques, for example positron emission tomography coupled to nuclear magnetic resonance;
Therapy based on very localized and evenly targeted irradiation
Both diagnostic tools and therapy benefit from the use of short-lived isotopes linked to smart biomolecules.
Progress in the epidemiology of low doses was also reported on by M. Wakeford during the conference. Recent results do not contradict the hypothesis of a « linear, no threshold, dose-effect relationship». On the other hand, uncertainties remain as to the influence of dose rates.
Education and training
The nuclear renaissance has given rise to a very great need for more well-trained technicians and engineers. Two years ago the educational offer proposed by western countries was insufficient to fulfil these needs. Since then a huge effort has been made by the academic community, with the help of industry, to increase and enhance the offer of education and training in the nuclear domain (European Nuclear Education Network - ENEN, the creation of several « Masters in Nuclear Engineering » in Europe, the European Nuclear Energy Leadership Academy - ENELA, etc.). The consequence of this dynamic development is healthy competition between universities to attract foreign students. The provision of education and training is still increasing – albeit in a somewhat disorderly way - but the impetus is there! Another highlight of the conference was the presentation of many simulation tools and their growing use in education and training. But to what extent can these tools replace training on a real reactor?
Networks and research structures
Research activity in the nuclear domain is more and more organised through international networks. Several active networks were referred to during the conference, among others the GIF and INPRO networks for the development of Generation IV nuclear systems. European programmes like ENEF, SNE-TP (see Pazdera’s talk) and ACSEPT-ACTINET (see S. Bourg’s talk) have also been reviewed, reflecting the image of a lively research programme.
These networks can rationalise the allocation of tasks between network members and bring some coherence to research activities worldwide. However, their administration is top-heavy, and their scientific productivity remains to be proven.
Altogether, this conference provided a stimulating occasion to review the progress that has been made in the very active nuclear arena!
Chairman of the ENS High Scientific Council