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Multinational effort to develop Gen4 nuclear technology for the Visegrad region

What do you do if you are a smaller country without the resources to fully exploit the next generation of nuclear energy? As one project has discovered, the answer could lie in smart regional collaboration.


The VINCO (Visegrad Initiative for Nuclear Cooperation) project was set up to help the Visegrad 4 (V4) countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) collectively benefit from the next generation of nuclear power (Gen4). As an EU-funded Coordination and Support Action, the project built capacity amongst the V4, by pooling expertise and knowledge. Its activities complement the work of the V4G4 (Visegrad 4 for Generation4) Centre of Excellence, established by research and engineering organisations from across the V4 to advance Gas-Cooled Fast Reactor (GFR) technology. To find out more, CORDIS caught up with Prof. Jacek Jagielski, Director of the Material Physics Department at the National Centre for Nuclear Research in Poland and coordinator of the project. What role does nuclear power play in the Visegrad region and what are the hopes for the future? Prof. Jagielski: In the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, nuclear power plants have been successfully and safely generating electricity for decades. Poland is planning to build water-cooled reactors for electricity generation and to develop High Temperature Reactor (HTR) technology for chemical companies. There is a consensus amongst the V4 that nuclear power will become a vital element of the energy mix, particularly for countries which rely on coal as their primary energy source. Why are Gas-Cooled Fast Reactors important to Gen4 technology? GFRs, like other breeder reactors, have a tremendous capability to increase the amount of energy that can be extracted from uranium ore. The current generation of reactors uses the isotope 235U, with a concentration of only 0.7 % natural uranium. Fast reactors can transform the 238U isotope, which is 99.3 % rich in natural uranium, into fissile plutonium (239Pu) which is then used to generate energy. The project also looked at HTR reactors, as, while sharing some characteristics with GFRs (such as helium cooling), they are closer to industrial implementation. HTRs are, literally, a hot property at the moment as they offer the only nuclear option likely to produce the heat needed for installations such as for the chemical industry, with steam temperatures typically reaching 550 °C or for hydrogen production with temperatures around 1 000 °C. They are of major interest in Poland, where we need to replace old coal-fired boilers in the chemical industry and don’t want to resort to importing gas. How does VINCO help address the V4’s nuclear power ambitions? Ultimately, the aim is to transform the V4 countries from being only users of nuclear technology, to becoming suppliers. But clearly nuclear technology is too costly for small and medium-sized countries to develop alone. If the V4 are to seriously benefit from fourth generation reactor technology, they need to cooperate with one another. VINCO’s Nuclear Power Strategic Task Force was a body of decision makers, from within and outside the Visegrad region. It provided a platform for exchanging knowledge, opinions and specific expertise. It also established collaborative principles about matters such as: rules of access to infrastructure, analysis of existing research, training, equipment and capabilities, setting R&D objectives and decisions about investment priorities. What did the different country members of VINCO bring to the table? All the participating VINCO countries came with their own specialisations. Slovakia brought expertise about design and safety concepts, the Czech Republic contributed helium technology and R&D knowledge, while Hungary came with GFR fuel expertise and Poland with that of structural materials for reactors. This allowed us to share tasks within and across the group. For example, GOSPOSTRATEG, a large project in Poland, is now benefiting directly from VINCO’s results as it prepares for the implementation of gas-cooled HTR technology. How will this work benefit the lives of EU citizens? Clean and reliable energy supply is undoubtedly one of the main challenges faced by developed countries, partly as they adapt to EU polices on energy production and the environment. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reliance on coal must be reduced very soon but credible alternatives are few and far between. Gas and oil are not sufficiently available across Europe and renewable energy sources may only ever play a limited role in the energy mix, due to their intermittent supply. The only realistic alternative left is nuclear technology, which is the safest, cleanest, most reliable and, as France demonstrates, cheapest source of energy. What are the next steps to take the work forward? Final decisions about the development of nuclear technologies obviously remain in the hands of the respective V4 governments. But by carefully looking at the capabilities and needs of the V4 countries, VINCO has prepared the groundwork for effective regional cooperation which could lead to the full exploitation of fourth generation nuclear technologies. Put simply, once the necessary strategic decisions are taken, we are collectively ready for the implementation phase. What are you most proud of from the project? Before VINCO, international contact between collaborative labs in the V4 was mostly channelled through high-level institute representatives, such as directors or professors. Bearing in mind that nuclear technology can take more than 20 years to develop, this is a concrete legacy of VINCO. We achieved something that will benefit my grandson, a future supply of reliable, responsibly sourced electricity.