Increasing energy demand, climate change and pressures on dwindling fossil fuel reserves are highlighting the need for cleaner, more efficient sources of energy. An innovative nuclear technology, fast reactors, could provide part of the answer and is the focus of a week long IAEA Conference taking place this week in Kyoto, Japan.
Fast reactors allow much more efficient recycling of nuclear fuel than the "thermal" reactors in widespread use today. They can thus vastly enhance the sustainability of nuclear power. They can also help reduce the amount of long-lived toxic material in nuclear waste and thus simplify nuclear waste disposal.
"Fast reactor technology has the potential to ensure that energy resources which would last hundreds of years with the technology we are using today will actually last several thousand years," declared IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano in the Conference´s opening address.
Since the last IAEA Conference on Fast Reactors in 1991, progress in research, development and design has not been coordinated, making planning and implementation of expensive R&D programmes challenging.
"The IAEA offers a unique collaboration framework for all players to work together to ensure that innovative fast reactor technology progresses. We provide an umbrella for knowledge preservation, information exchange and collaborative R&D to pool resources and expertise," Mr. Amano noted.
The pace at which the nuclear energy option is embraced is accelerating worldwide as existing marked imbalances in energy availability cause more and more emerging economies to give it serious consideration. An increased focus on cleaner and more efficient nuclear energy could hasten fast reactor development.
"For obvious sustainability reasons, spent fuel utilization and breeding are returning to centre stage and fast reactor technology is necessary as a linchpin. This rapidly evolving situation is likely to also accelerate fast reactor deployment," stated Alexander Stanculescu, Nuclear Engineer at the IAEA Nuclear Power Technology Development Section.
Intended for both experienced and young professionals, scientists and engineers from both the public and private sector - including research institutes, academia, regulatory bodies and the nuclear industry - the Conference will highlight ongoing research and development efforts. It will provide an appropriate forum to exchange experience and innovative ideas.
On the last day of the event, students and lecturers in the field of nuclear science, as well as local citizens will be invited to a discussion with experts on the subject of fast reactors in a special organized session in the town of Tsuruga, near the Japanese fast reactor Monju.
Conference participants will point out the significance and major attributes of fast reactors to deepen the understanding of the issues among the general public, a potential milestone in the acceptance of nuclear energy and fast reactor technology in particular.
The International Conference on Fast Reactors and Related Fuel Cycles: Challenges and Opportunities is being held from 7 - 11 December 2009 in Kyoto (Japan). It is organized by the IAEA in cooperation with the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA).
When neutrons are generated during the fission process in a reactor they have high energy and are moving fast. Reactors that operate using these fast neutrons are called fast reactors. When fast neutrons hit 238U atoms there is a high likelihood that they are absorbed and that a new atom (239Pu), which is a new fissile material, is produced (after several decays). This process is called breeding if more fissile material is produced during the operation of the reactor than is consumed for the production of energy.
For over 40 years, the IAEA has been serving interested Member States as a major forum for fast reactor information exchange and collaborative research and technology development.