Gas cooled reactors

Commercial gas cooled reactors are currently in use only in the United Kingdom. International interest in developing high temperature gas cooled reactors is increasing because they can provide efficient and cost effective electricity and produce high-temperature process heat usable for various industrial applications.

Gas cooled reactors currently represent about three per cent of the total number of reactors in commercial operation worldwide. These are all advanced carbon-dioxide gas cooled reactors in the United Kingdom that will be phased out around the mid-2020s. Many Member States are interested in and developing advanced High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactors (HTGRs) that use helium as a coolant. Such reactors can achieve very high fuel utilization rates and operate at high temperatures. They also produce process heat, which can be used for hydrogen production and low-temperature applications such as seawater desalination and district heating.

States currently consider small modular HTGR designs that allow the reactor to solely rely on inherent safety characteristics and design features instead of active engineered safety systems. It is envisaged to deploy such technology in the near future, for efficient electricity generation and combined heat and power – or cogeneration – applications, to serve a large market for HTGR process heat.

Several HTGR research and development projects are underway in Member States, including China, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Republic of Korea, Russia, South Africa, United States and the European Union. A commercial demonstration power plant, the pebble bed module reactor, is currently under construction in Shidao Bay, China, with prospects to generate electricity by 2017.

A systematic approach

The IAEA has helped establish the foundation for the development and deployment of this technology in the near future through the international exchange of information and coordination of HTGR research. The Agency coordinates efforts by Member States to facilitate the development of gas cooled reactors of various types. It does this by taking a systematic approach to the identification and development of key enabling technologies to achieve the highest safety levels, competitive economics and reliability, and by addressing common technological issues that could advance their deployment.

The Agency’s undertakes its activities in this area with the active participation and advice of the Technical Working Group on Gas Cooled Reactors (TWG-GCR). This Working Group was created in 1978, with the purpose of advising the IAEA on how to promote the exchange of technical information and international cooperation on gas cooled reactors, in particular for electricity and process heat applications. The IAEA also set up Coordinated Research Projects on uncertainty analysis in HTGR modeling, on the development of safety design criteria, and on the application of HTGR process heat for energy neutral and sustainable mineral extraction.

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