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IAEA Awards Young Nuclear Scientists for Research on Fast Reactors and Related Fuel Cycles

Yekaterinburg Russia

Group photo of YGE winners with IAEA staff including, in center, Deputy Director General Mikhail Chudakov, Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy (Photo Credit: IAEA)

Six young nuclear scientists seeking innovative solutions for a low-carbon future were awarded for their efforts today as the IAEA’s International Conference on Fast Reactors and Related Fuel Cycles: Next Generation Nuclear Systems for Sustainable Development (FR17) concluded in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

Five scientists under age 35 were selected as winners of one part of FR17’s Young Generation Event (YGE), which solicited original research proposals on fast reactors (FRs) or innovative nuclear technologies capable of contributing to United Nations Sustainable Development Goals related to energy and climate change. In addition, one winner was chosen in a second part of the contest on leadership, for which participants submitted speeches or presentations on next-generation nuclear systems for sustainable development.

“The winners demonstrated their enthusiasm and commitment to making a difference in developing nuclear technology as an effective tool for addressing climate change,” said Christophe Xerri, Director of the IAEA’s Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle, Waste Technology and Research Reactors and Co-Chairman of the YGE Selection Committee. “Their papers proposed innovative scientific and engineering approaches to fast reactors and their fuel cycle, bringing concrete ideas to realize their vision.”

The 26-29 June conference brought together more than 600 experts from 29 countries and six international organizations for high-level discussions on FRs and related fuel cycles, which hold out the promise of providing clean and sustainable energy for thousands of years. The third such IAEA event after conferences in Kyoto in 2009 and Paris in 2013, FR17 was hosted by the Government of the Russian Federation through State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom, which oversees the world’s only FRs in commercial operation today, at Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant near Yekaterinburg.

Fast-neutron systems use fast neutrons without a moderator to sustain the fission chain reaction. When operated in a closed fuel cycle, they can extract 60 to 70 times more energy from uranium than existing thermal reactors, making them vastly more efficient in fuel utilization. Capable of breeding and recycling nuclear fuel, they have the potential to significantly increase the sustainability of nuclear power and lessen the burden on geological repositories for nuclear waste.

The most mature fast-reactor technology is the sodium-cooled FR, which has more than 400 reactor years of experience via the design, construction and operation of experimental, prototype, demonstration and commercial units in countries including China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Other coolants under development include molten salt, lead, lead-bismuth and gas.

The winners of the “Young Innovator” challenge were Kristof Gladinez and Edouard Bissen of Belgium, Eirik Pettersen of Norway, and S. Aravindan and Balija Sreenivasulu, both of India. More about their research proposals, which they presented at the conference, can be found here. Luke Lebel of Canada won the “Young Global Leader” challenge. They all received a certificate signed by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano recognizing their efforts to develop future energy solutions as well as financial support to attend the conference.

“I first became interested in science at an early age, and later I became fascinated with nuclear engineering,” said Gladinez, 25. “Nuclear is often forgotten as an ‘old’ technology, but this conference shows it’s absolutely not old because everything we are discussing here is new and still needs to be applied.

The contestants’ proposals included research aimed at overcoming challenges to FR development, which are both technical and economic. “One idea of this competition was to have the young generation make compelling proposals, so that the IAEA or another organization could become interested in supporting further study on the topic,” said Chirayu Batra, a nuclear engineer in the IAEA’s Fast Reactor Technology Development team and organizer of the YGE.

The conference explored issues including reactor design concepts, safety and licensing, operations and decommissioning, fuels and fuel-cycle options, coolants, tests and simulations, economics and performance, proliferation resistance and physical protection, capacity building, and professional development.

A common theme among the contest winners was the ability of advanced nuclear power systems to tackle climate change.

“I think of nuclear as the pragmatic option to solving global warming,” said Pettersen, who hopes to develop a molten-salt reactor capable of reducing waste while enhancing safety. “Nuclear is the only source of energy that has been able to decarbonize an economy on a big scale in history, so for me it’s about taking something that’s been proven to work and trying to push that further.”