SCK CEN is leading research towards sustainable nuclear energy
Federal government awards research budget of 100 million euros
The die is cast. The nuclear research centre SCK CEN will research small, modular reactors of the future – in cooperation with (inter)national partners. To this end, it will receive a budget of 100 million euros from the Federal government. “With its unrivalled nuclear expertise, SCK CEN will lead Belgium towards sustainable nuclear energy,” said Prime Minister Alexander De Croo in his speech. He delivered this speech at the celebration of SCK CEN's 70th anniversary. The nuclear research centre is thus resuming its original mission.
The optimism for progress with which the founding act of the nuclear research centre SCK CEN was signed in 1952 has far from cooled. “At the time, SCK CEN was created to promote nuclear energy in Belgium and launch the Belgian atomic age. Today, we are the rock for a wide range of nuclear fields. I am proud that we are constantly exploring new areas and discovering the immense potential of the atom – and doing so in function of social needs,” states Eric van Walle, Director-General of SCK CEN.
“Indeed, after seventy years of nuclear innovation, our ambition is still strong,” says Peter Baeten, the new Director-General of SCK CEN from 1 November 2022. The nuclear research centre will be able to fulfil its mission of nuclear innovator to the full, as societal challenges are already knocking at the door. “Nuclear medicine is experiencing spectacular growth. We will therefore be strongly committed to this in the coming years, both with our BR2 research reactor and with new infrastructures.” In addition to its vital production of medical radioisotopes for diagnostics, SCK CEN will produce new radioisotopes for therapeutic applications and purify them into radiopharmaceutical products. And these are not empty promises: the construction projects are literally in the works. A second challenge we are facing is the dismantling of Belgium's nuclear power plants. “The knowledge and experience we gained from our BR3 pressurised water reactor will be used in the decommissioning of Belgium's nuclear power plants.”
“On the eve of its 70th anniversary, the Belgian nuclear research centre still has to constantly reinvent itself. Scientists and technicians have to anticipate technological progress, certainly in the medical sector,” says Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy and Employment Pierre-Yves Dermagne. “It is of utmost importance for Belgium that SCK CEN and IRE, also celebrating an anniversary, continue to play a pioneering role in this field in cooperation with Belgian companies such as IBA. With this extraordinary Belgian expertise, we save lives every day, almost everywhere in the world.”
“From contributing to medicine and food security to providing clean energy, nuclear science has modernized and improved the world in a relatively short period of time. SCK CEN has been part of shaping this history and can rightly be proud of its contribution,” explains Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This is high praise on a big day for SCK CEN. Today, 24 May 2022, the Centre celebrates its 70th anniversary. International policymakers and nuclear scientists are coming together to celebrate this historic moment.
in both the technological field and in the field of passive safety, non-proliferation, minimisation of long-lived waste and economic feasibility.
Second life for Belgian nuclear energy research
And what about nuclear energy – the rationale for the creation of SCK CEN? “The word is in our name, but research on Belgian nuclear power plants currently focuses on the safety and technical life of reactor components,” says Eric van Walle. The Belgian government now wants to invest in the research into innovative small modular reactors (SMRs). It calls on the unparalleled knowledge and decades of experience of SCK CEN to take charge of research and development.
Minister Van der Straeten: “In addition to the substantial progress of renewable energy, the government has also decided to study other technologies which could make a contribution by 2050. To this end, the government is making 25 million euros available per year for research into fourth-generation small modular reactors (SMR) for a period of 4 years. This should allow to verify whether sustainable nuclear energy is technically feasible. The researchers of SCK CEN belong to the absolute world best and are now looking for major breakthroughs in both the technological field and in the field of passive safety, non-proliferation, minimisation of long-lived waste and economic feasibility.”
The small modular reactors for which the government is providing a research budget of 100 million euros do not use water as a coolant. A liquid metal – sodium or lead – or a gas has to cool the reactor core. The advantage of this coolant choice is that the nuclear fuel burns up more efficiently, leaving less nuclear waste at the end of the day. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who attended the celebration along with the Ministers responsible, Pierre-Yves Dermagne and Tinne Van der Straeten, acknowledges that extending 2 GW nuclear reactors and decommissioning other reactors while pursuing innovative plants requires an ambitious approach. “I am convinced that leading nuclear players like IAEA and SCK CEN are a source of knowledge inflow and, in addition, can together ensure the necessary knowledge retention.”
Derrick-Philippe Gosselin, Chairman of SCK CEN’s Board of Directors, also agrees: “On behalf of all the members of the Board of Directors, I want to congratulate SCK CEN on its 70th anniversary. This federal research institution is one of our country’s jewels. We are world famous for our nuclear knowledge and thanks to our continuous pursuit of excellence. It is a special honour to be Chairman of SCK CEN which works every day with great enthusiasm toward a better tomorrow.”
MYRRHA as a development boost
If Belgium chose to explore lead-cooled SMRs, it could benefit from the development pathway of MYRRHA. MYRRHA is not an SMR, but it shares some principles, such as compactness, the coolant, and thus fast neutrons. “SCK CEN has specific expertise in nuclear technology cooled with lead-bismuth. It is a world leader in this field. That puts Belgium in a privileged position,” explains Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.
SCK CEN can therefore transfer the lessons learned from the MYRRHA development pathway to the development pathway of innovative SMRs. Although the objective remains fundamentally different. Eric van Walle clarifies: “Innovative SMRs will produce electricity. With MYRRHA, we need those fast neutrons to demonstrate that we can convert highly radiotoxic waste into waste that is no longer toxic, gives off less heat, and for the most part has a shorter lifespan. With that process, transmutation, we can reduce the ecological footprint of a future geological repository.”
SCK CEN has been part of shaping this history and can rightly be proud of its contribution.
Although Belgium is in a privileged position, expectations must remain realistic. “We realise that there is still a lot of research work to be done before Belgium can build a first SMR. In order to succeed, national and international cooperation – both on a scientific and on an industrial level – is an absolute necessity,” concludes Hamid Aït Abderrahim, the godfather of MYRRHA. Therefore, the research constitutes the start of the search for suitable industrial partners for the realisation of the innovative SMRs.
Rewatch the academic session
Look back and ahead with Jean, one of our first employees, and Simon Sauvillers, one of our newest colleagues. Fun fact: their age difference is exactly 70 years.