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Energy: Nuclear Reactors

House of Lords written question – answered on 8th November 2011.

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Photo of Lord Stoddart of Swindon Lord Stoddart of Swindon Independent Labour

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the desirability of supporting the building of thorium-fuelled nuclear power stations in preference to uranium-fuelled stations.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

Ultimately it is for industry to propose what type of fuel to use in any future nuclear reactors, the designs of which would be subject to independent regulatory assessment and acceptance. To date, no potential operator has put forward proposals for a thorium-fuelled plant in the UK.

That said, the department is aware of the potential of thorium-fuelled nuclear reactor designs and is in the process of assessing claims regarding its suitability as an alternative to uranium based reactors in the longer term.

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. 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.

To date, both in the UK and elsewhere in the world, this has prevented private industry and government from investing significantly in the development of the technology. 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.

As an indicator of the challenge of taking this technology further, the Chinese Academy of Sciences estimates that a development period of at least 20 years will be required before a demonstration thorium molten-salt breeder reactor might be available.

While thorium does not appear to have a part to play in the UK's near to mid-term energy market, we do maintain an interest in its development. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has asked the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) to look further into the wider benefits of next-generation reactor designs and to compare the use of thorium and uranium fuels in them. We are expecting the findings to be available in due course.

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