There is little chance that thorium-fuelled nuclear reactors will play a major role in meeting the UK’s future energy requirements, according to Tina Stowell, a government spokesman on energy and climate change in the Lords.
Responding to a parliamentary question from independent Labour peer David Stoddart, Stowell said that in the short to medium-term there was no likelihood of government support to build such reactors instead of uranium-based technologies.
Thorium reactors are being investigated by a number of countries, including China, India and Russia, as candidates for the next generation of nuclear power stations. Proponents say that it is likely to be to be safer than conventional designs and that thorium ores are much more plentiful than uranium.
However, Stowell said that that the nuclear industry was ultimately responsible for decisions on the designs of future reactors, subject to independent regulatory assessment and acceptance. No operator had put forward proposals for developing a thorium-based reactor.
“The current view of thorium reactor technologies from the nuclear industry is that, whilst the science is reasonably sound, developing reactors based on a thorium fuel cycle would carry major technological and commercial risks,” she said.
“The resources required to develop these technologies to the point at which they might be deployed successfully at a commercial scale are also very significant,” she added.
Consequently, governments and companies around the world had been reluctant to make significant investments in developing such technologies: ”No thorium reactor design has been implemented beyond relatively small, experimental systems, whilst many either only exist on paper or have only had specific subsystems demonstrated,” said Stowell.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences estimated that a development period of at least 20 years would be required before a demonstration thorium molten-salt breeder reactor might be available, she said.
However, the government had not completely ruled out thorium technologies in the longer term. The Secretary of State for Energy had asked the National Nuclear Laboratory to investigate future options for nuclear technologies which would include a comparison of uranium and thorium-based fuels, she said.
In the meantime, efforts to tackle the legacy of existing nuclear technologies still require funding.
“It is important to recognise that nuclear waste disposal and decommissioning are major challenges for society,” said Katherine Morris, geodisposal research director at the Research Centre for Radwaste and Decommissioning at the University of Manchester, which officially opened on 9 November.
The RCRD has received £5 million in research funding from public and private funding agencies since it began operations last year. Projects include a study looking at the feasibility of a deep geological disposal facility for nuclear waste.
“We are delighted with the successes of the RCRD over the last 12 months and we very much look forward to forging new links with partners in industry and academia which is essential both to address this most complex of tasks and to gain public confidence in our research activities,” said Morris.