What are Generation IV reactors?

Generation IV reactors are an initiative of the Gen IV International Forum (GIF). Proposed by the United States in 2000, this framework for international cooperation involves 13 countries including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Japan, South Korea, the United States, Russia, South Africa, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, as well as EURATOM, which represents the 27 members of the European Union.

This technology was developed to replace the existing reactors, usually water-cooled, which are spread all over the world.

This initiative aims to broaden the scope of nuclear power while limiting what may be considered the most damaging aspects of nuclear energy, such as the environmental impact (however minimal), the volume of nuclear waste generated, and the risks associated with nuclear fission.

Interior of the Shidaowan nuclear power plant containing the world's first Generation IV reactor.

It should be noted that the new reactors are designed to operate at higher temperatures than most of those currently in existence.

GIF has proposed six types of fourth-generation nuclear technology and most of the countries participating in the agreement have pledged to produce at least one of them. Apart from reactors that use helium for cooling such as the one at the Shidaowan nuclear power plant, GIF has also indicated:

  • Lead-cooled fast reactor
  • Molten salt reactor
  • Sodium-cooled fast reactor
  • Supercritical Water-Cooled Reactor
  • Very high-temperature reactor

Of these, China is building a prototype at Xiapu in Fujian province, southeast China, which will be operated by China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and is expected to be connected to the grid by 2025.

There are other sodium-cooled reactors in operation in the world, but they are of the third generation. Such systems, unlike traditional reactors and HTGRs, are capable of recycling depleted uranium and re-fuelling it.

Although the Shidaowan nuclear power plant is the world's first HTGR to produce power for commercial distribution, other fourth-generation plants are under research and design in the United States, Japan, and Canada.

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