The Belgian government has announced that it will provide funding of €100-million for research into advanced small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs). The money will be given to the country’s SCK-CEN nuclear research centre in tranches of €25-million a year, over four years. The announcement was made at a function marking the seventieth anniversary of the 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,” explained Belgian Energy Minister Tinne van der Straeten, speaking at the event. “This [funding] should allow [us] 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 funding is to be used for research into SMR designs that do not use water for cooling. That is, their cores must be cooled by either gas or by liquid metal. (South Africa’s long abandoned SMR, the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, would have been gas cooled.) The options for liquid metal cooling are basically lead or sodium.
Belgian researchers are already working on a combined lead-bismuth coolant for the planned ‘subcritical’ reactor for the country’s Multipurpose Hybrid Research Reactor for High-Tech Applications, or Myrrha for short. This facility will include a linear accelerator, which is currently under construction. The hybrid reactor, with a capacity of 100 MWt, will follow later, being scheduled for commissioning in 2036. It will contain fissile material in its core, but not enough to sustain a chain reaction. Rather, periods of criticality will be achieved by means of a proton beam directed into the core. When the beam is switched off, the nuclear reactions will stop.
“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,” highlighted Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo. “It is a world leader in this field. That puts Belgium in a privileged position.”
“We realise that there is still a lot of research work to be done before Belgium can build a first SMR,” pointed out SCK-CEN deputy director-general Hamid Ait Abderrahim. “In order to succeed, national and international cooperation – both on a scientific and 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.”