Belgium's SCK-CEN nuclear research centre will receive a budget of EUR100 million (USD107 million) from the federal government to conduct research into small modular reactors (SMRs).

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo speaking at the event to mark SCK-CEN's 70th anniversary (Image: SCK-CEN)

"In addition to the substantial progress of renewable energy, the government has also decided to study other technologies which could make a contribution by 2050," said Minister of Energy Tinne Van der Straeten during a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of SCK-CEN's founding. "To this end, the government is making EUR25 million available per year for research into fourth-generation small modular reactors for a period of four years.

"This should allow to verify whether sustainable nuclear energy is technically feasible. The researchers of SCK-CEN belong to the absolute world best and are now looking for major breakthroughs in both the technological field and in the field of passive safety, non-proliferation, minimisation of long-lived waste and economic feasibility."

The government wants the funding to be used to research SMRs that do not use water as a coolant. A liquid metal - sodium or lead - or a gas must cool the reactor core.

If Belgium chooses to explore lead-cooled SMRs, it could benefit from the development pathway of the Multipurpose Hybrid Research Reactor for High-tech Applications (Myrrha) accelerator-driven research reactor. Although Myrrha is not an SMR, it shares some principles, such as compactness, the coolant, and thus fast neutrons, SCK-CEN noted.

Myrrha will be a sub-critical assembly relying on accelerated protons producing neutrons in the target to achieve periods of criticality in a low-enriched uranium core. It will be a 57 MWt accelerator-driven system in which a proton accelerator will deliver a 600 MeV proton beam to a liquid lead-bismuth (Pb-Bi) spallation target that is in turn coupled to a Pb-Bi cooled subcritical fast nuclear core.

Myrrha is intended to replace Belgium's ageing BR2 research reactor, and will be used in a range of research functions including the demonstration of the concept of transmutation of long-lived radionuclides in nuclear waste, as well as producing radioisotopes for medicine. Myrrha will also be used for conducting fundamental scientific research in areas such as nuclear physics, atomic physics, fundamental interactions, solid-state physics and nuclear medicine.

SCK-CEN can transfer the lessons learned from the Myrrha development pathway to the development pathway of innovative SMRs, although the objective remains fundamentally different.

"Innovative SMRs will produce electricity," explains SCK-CEN Director-General Eric van Walle. "With Myrrha, we need those fast neutrons to demonstrate that we can convert highly radiotoxic waste into waste that is no longer toxic, gives off less heat, and for the most part has a shorter lifespan. With that process, transmutation, we can reduce the ecological footprint of a future geological repository."

"We realise that there is still a lot of research work to be done before Belgium can build a first SMR," added SCK-CEN Deputy Director-General Hamid Aït Abderrahim. "In order to succeed, national and international cooperation - both on a scientific and on an industrial level - is an absolute necessity. Therefore, the research constitutes the start of the search for suitable industrial partners for the realisation of the innovative SMRs."

Speaking at the 70th anniversary event, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said: "With its unrivalled nuclear expertise, SCK-CEN will lead Belgium towards sustainable nuclear energy ... SCK-CEN has specific expertise in nuclear technology cooled with lead-bismuth. It is a world leader in this field. That puts Belgium in a privileged position."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News

Date: Wednesday, 25 May 2022
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