Novel nuclear power plant designs do not resolve the technology’s fundamental challenge of hazardous nuclear waste, a 22 March report commissioned by Germany’s Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management (BASE) has concluded. “None of the alternative reactor types would make a final repository redundant,” the government agency said, according to a report by online news agency Clean Energy Wire.

Despite efforts by producers of Generation IV reactors to “intensively advertise” the concept’s supposed benefits, said BASE, it “could not detect any trends that would make the construction of alternative reactor types at an industrial scale likely in the next years.” On the contrary, the disadvantages and uncertainties from a security perspective would continue to outweigh the technology’s advantages, the study led by the Institute for Applied Ecology (Öko-Institut) found.

New nuclear plant designs, such as small modular reactors (SMR), would not only perpetuate the difficult long-term question of nuclear waste disposal, but also had little to offer for solving short-term climate action problems, BASE added.

The report looked at seven novel reactor types, which according to their producers are more efficient in nuclear fuel use and run more safely and reliably, are economically viable, and cause less radioactive waste. While some of these improvements seem plausible, the report said that central questions regarding safety remain unanswered with all new concepts. “In some areas, there are even disadvantages compared to today’s light water reactors,” which remain the favoured technology in six surveyed countries (USA, Russia, China, South Korea, Poland and Belgium). Alternative reactor types still required “substantial“ research and development, and it would likely still take several decades before they can be deployed at a relevant scale, the researchers added. Promises about new concepts in nuclear technology as a potential boost for climate action therefore had to be considered “not realistic,” they concluded.

While Germany closed down its three last reactors in spring 2023 after a decades-long debate, many other countries continue to rely on nuclear technology or even plan to considerably expand it in a bid to bring down their energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. At the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) first ever nuclear energy summit in Brussels earlier March, more than two dozen states called for a revival of the technology, including France, the Netherlands, the USA and Japan. "Without the support of nuclear power, we have no chance to reach our climate targets on time," International Energy Agency (IEA) chief Fatih Birol said in a report carried by news agency Reuters.

Nuclear power in Europe

The role of nuclear power in Europe’s emissions reduction plans has been a contentious issue for many years, with Germany and France emerging as the main opposing forces between two groups of countries aiming to rely entirely on renewable power or to also use nuclear power in a future climate neutral energy system. While Germany has achieved a substantial expansion of its renewable power capacity and now sources more than half of its electricity that way, the country still faces challenges regarding the required grid modernisation and back-up and storage capacity to complement wind turbines and solar panels. France, on the other hand, has the largest share of nuclear power production of any country but struggles to secure funding for new projects and to comply with cost and construction time plans for existing ones.