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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

Information on the project

Nuclear reactor concepts of Generation IV

Thematic area: Energy, resources, environment
Analytical approach: TA project
Topic initiative: Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment
Duration: 2020 till 2021

Background and central aspects of the topic

Nuclear power plant designs are often divided into so-called generations. In the common nomenclature, the reactor types commissioned in the 1970s to 1980s are referred to as »Generation II«. Current reactor concepts carry the designation »Generation III/III+«. Nuclear reactor concepts of Generation IV, however, are still at a research and experimental stage. Since the beginning of the 2000s, research on this topic has been internationally coordinated by the »Generation IV International Forum« (GIF). The aim is to develop nuclear reactors that offer significant advantages compared to conventional reactors in terms of sustainability, safety and reliability, economic competitiveness, proliferation resistance and physical protection. There are six different concepts that are pursued:

  • gas-cooled fast reactors (GFR)
  • molten salt reactors (MSR)
  • sodium-cooled fast reactors (SFR)
  • lead-cooled fast reactors (LFR)
  • supercritical water-cooled reactors (SCWR)
  • very-high-temperature reactors (VHTR)

For some of these systems, there have been research and development activities for decades. The original objective of the GIF was to get into the demonstration phase of the reactor types as of 2015/2020 in order to enter the market as of 2030. However, an update of the original roadmap published in 2014 shows that this time frame currently is expected to be delayed by approximately 5 to 10 years. With reactor concepts of the so-called Generation IV, ambitious technology objectives are to be aimed at: One objective is to minimise radioactive waste and, thus, to significantly reduce the requirements for long-term monitoring and surveillance or final disposal of waste. As far as the safety of reactor operation is concerned, another objective is to limit the impacts of any incidents or accidents on the premises and thus to eliminate the need for emergency measures outside the premises. In terms of economic efficiency, the aim is to achieve that Generation IV reactors have cost advantages compared to competing energy technologies and that their financial risk is comparable to that of other energy projects. The nuclear fuels and materials used or produced in Generation IV reactors shall be of such a kind that they are inconvenient to be misused for nuclear weapons. Moreover, the reactors shall be intended to provide improved physical protection against terrorist attacks. It is undisputed that some of the reactor concepts have significant potential advantages compared to current nuclear power plant types with regard to some of the objectives mentioned. The challenge now is to combine all of these ambitious technology objectives into a single reactor concept.

Objectives and approach

The subject area will be explored by means of a literature study which may be selectively complemented by expert interviews, if required. As a result, a status report on Generation IV reactor concepts will be drawn up. The report shall provide an overview of the properties of the different reactor concepts with regard to the following aspects:

  • safety
  • use of resources and fuel supply
  • radioactive waste
  • costs
  • proliferation of nuclear weapons-grade materials

For this, the pros and cons from relevant literature will be reflected in a synoptic comparison. There will be no in-depth analyses – particularly not on reactor safety issues. The project will specifically focus on more recent developments (such as those made during the last 2 to 3 years). In addition to the current state of research and development as well as ongoing and planned research projects, an overview of the various international actors involved (public and commercial funding bodies, participating scientific and technical institutions) will be provided. The role played by German actors regarding the safety of new reactor concepts and their fuel supply and disposal will be examined.