U.K.-Japan Team to Jointly Develop Nuclear Fuel for Next-gen Reactor

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Oarai Research and Development Institute of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency in Oarai, Ibaraki Prefecture is seen in August 2020.

A team from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) and Britain’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) will begin joint development of nuclear fuel for a high-temperature gas reactor (HTGR).

The British government has selected the JAEA to participate in the development of a demonstration reactor, which is aimed to begin operation in the early 2030s, allocating about ¥2.9 billion toward the project. The JAEA will also participate in the basic design of the reactor.

A world leader in HTGR technology, the agency plans to apply technologies from the overseas project in the development of future demonstration reactors in Japan.

HTGRs, which use helium instead of water to cool the reactor core, are said to be as safe as fast breeder reactors and advanced light water reactors. They can withstand high temperatures, which mitigates the risks of accidents such as explosions and core meltdowns. In addition to generating electricity, the reactors produce hydrogen.

HTGRs are being developed by the United States, Britain, China and South Korea, among other countries.

Conventional light water reactors use large amounts of seawater for cooling. As HTGRs do not require water for cooling, there is less of an issue regarding the location of the facilities.

The British government is developing a demonstration reactor to test the technology as a preliminary step toward commercialization. Hartlepool in central England is a candidate site.

Because the fuel used in light water reactors cannot withstand the high heat of HTGRs, a special fuel is needed. The British government plans to build a fuel plant, but the country lacks sufficient manufacturing technology.

The JAEA has an experimental gas-cooled High-Temperature Engineering Test Reactor in the town of Oarai, Ibaraki Prefecture, which achieved its first criticality in 1998.

The British government’s selection of the JAEA is a strong endorsement of the agency’s track record in developing and producing high-quality fuels in partnership with domestic firms.

The British and Japanese team is expected to conduct research to improve the production technology, including the design of the fuel.

The reactor project has three stages: first preliminary studies, then basic design, and lastly, construction and operation. The British and Japanese team was selected for the first stage last September. The same team has been selected for the second stage.

About ¥2.7 billion will be allocated for the reactor design, excluding funding for fuel.

For Japan, there are significant advantages to participating in the British initiative. The JAEA plans to call on Japanese companies to cooperate with the British government’s plan. The joint project is also expected to bring about technological improvements and contribute to human resource development, as well as helping to boost Japan’s efforts to develop demonstration reactors.

Japan aims to start operations of a demonstration reactor in the late 2030s, according to a timetable released by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry in August last year. Operating costs can be reduced if the fuel is manufactured in Britain.