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New nuclear policies China
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China is developing a new design of nuclear power plant in an attempt to reduce its reliance on coal and to cut air pollution.

In an effort to reduce the number of coal-fired plants, the Chinese government has brought forward by 15 years the deadline to develop a nuclear power plant using the radioactive element thorium instead of uranium.

A team of researchers in Shanghai has now been told it has 10 instead of 25 years to develop the world's first such plant.

"In the past, the government was interested in nuclear power because of the energy shortage. Now, they are more interested because of smog," Professor Li Zhong, a scientist working on the project, told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

An advanced research centre was set up in January by the Chinese Academy of Sciences with the aim of developing an industrial reactor using thorium molten salt technology, the newspaper reported.

According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), China has 20 nuclear plants in operation and another 28 under construction, all uranium-fuelled reactors. China has been importing large quantities of uranium as it attempts to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. However, according to the WNA, thorium is much more abundant.

The researchers on the project said they had come under considerable pressure from the government for it to be successful. Li said nuclear power was the "only solution" to replace coal, and thorium "carries much hope".

"The problem of coal has become clear," he said: "if the average energy consumption per person doubles, this country will be choked to death by polluted air."

"China has an ambitious nuclear-generation programme. It plans to have almost 60 gigawatts of nuclear energy by 2020 and up to 150gw by 2030, so the Chinese have plans to get a significant amount of nuclear into the energy mix," said Jonathan Cobb of the WNA.

There is a lot that is still unknown about thorium but a lot of research is being carried out worldwide. Cobb said: "Other countries around the world are looking at thorium. There is a fair bit of research going on at the moment into the use of thorium. And technology-wise, using thorium would not be too much of a leap. It is certainly something that is well under way in terms of research," said Cobb.

The researchers on the project told the South China Morning Post their work would be likely to face some opposition from Chinese citizens after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, in Japan.

However, the national nuclear safety administration said the safety of China's nuclear power plants could be assured, and checks had been stepped up since Fukushima to avoid a similar accident.

Nuclear fusion breakthrough
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US researchers have achieved a world first in an ambitious experiment that aims to recreate the conditions at the heart of the sun and pave the way for nuclear fusion reactors.

The scientists generated more energy from fusion reactions than they put into the nuclear fuel, in a small but crucial step along the road to harnessing fusion power. The ultimate goal – to produce more energy than the whole experiment consumes – remains a long way off, but the feat has nonetheless raised hopes that after decades of setbacks, firm progress is finally being made.

Fusion energy has the potential to become a radical alternative power source, with zero carbon emissions during operation and minimal waste, but the technical difficulties in demonstrating fusion in the lab have so far proved overwhelming. While existing nuclear reactors generate energy by splitting atoms into lighter particles, fusion reactors combine light atomic nuclei into heavier particles.

In their experiments, researchers at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California use a bank of 192 powerful lasers to crush a minuscule amount of fuel so hard and fast that it becomes hotter than the sun.

The process is not straightforward. The lasers are fired into a gold capsule that holds a 2mm-wide spherical pellet. The fuel is coated on the inside of this plastic pellet in a layer as thin as a human hair.

When the laser light enters the gold capsule, it makes the walls of the gold container emit x-rays, which heat the pellet and make it implode with extraordinary ferocity. The fuel, a mixture of hydrogen isotopes called tritium and deuterium, partially fuses under the intense conditions.

The scientists have not generated more energy than the experiment uses in total. The lasers unleash nearly two megajoules of energy on their target, the equivalent, roughly, of two standard sticks of dynamite. But only a tiny fraction of this reaches the fuel. Writing in Nature, the scientists say fusion reactions in the fuel released at best 17 kilojoules of energy.

Though slight, the advance is welcome news for the NIF scientists. In 2012, the project was restructured and given more modest goals after six years of failure to generate more energy than the experiment consumes, known as "ignition".

Results from the NIF facility will help scientists work out how to build a fusion reactor, but the centre is funded primarily to help the US understand how its stockpile of nuclear weapons is ageing. The experiments help to verify computer models that are used in place of nuclear tests, which are now banned.

Omar Hurricane, the lead author of the report, said the latest improvement came by controlling the implosion of the spherical pellet more carefully. In previous experiments, the pellet distorted as it was crushed, which seemed to reduce the efficiency of the process. By squashing the fuel more softly, helium nuclei that are produced in the fusion reactions dump their energy into the fuel, heating it up even further, and driving a cycle of ever more fusion.

"We are finally, by harnessing these reactions, getting more energy out of that reaction than we put into the DT fuel," Hurricane said. The report appears in the journal Nature.

The dream of controlled fusion remains a distant hope, and Hurricane said it was too early to say whether it was even possible with the NIF facility. The researchers need to get a hundred times more energy from the fusion reactions before the process can run itself, and more for it to deliver an overall surplus of energy.

Steven Cowley, director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy near Abingdon in the UK, said the study was "truly excellent" and began to address the core challenges of what is known as inertial fusion in the lab. He said the team may need a bigger laser, or a redesigned capsule that can be squashed more violently without becoming unstable. "Livermore should be given plenty of time to develop a better capsule. It strikes me that we have only just begun to understand the fusion regime," Cowley told the Guardian.

The Culham lab has taken a different approach, called magnetic confinement. As long ago as 1997, the facility generated 16MW of power with 24MW put into the device. "We have waited 60 years to get close to controlled fusion. We are now close in both magnetic and inertial. We must keep at it. The engineering milestone is when the whole plant produces more energy than it consumes," Cowley said.

The experimental fusion reactor Iter, which is being built in France, is expected to be the first plant to produce more energy than it consumes. The project has faced delays of more than two years and overrun budgets, but is still an international flagship for fusion research. "Iter is going slowly but progress is happening," said Cowley.

EU future climate policy
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The European Commission has outlined its plans for climate and energy policy until 2030.

The Commissioners want a binding target to reduce carbon emissions by 40% from 1990 levels.

Renewables will need to provide 27% of EU energy by 2030, but while the target will be binding at EU level there will be no mandatory targets for member states.

The policy proposals are subject to review by heads of government.

Green groups have said the new targets lack ambition and the 40% emissions cut is "dangerously low".

This wide ranging White Paper will have a significant impact on the way Europe generates its power from 2020 onwards.

The Commission wants to give clarity to investors in renewable energy while at the same time maintaining their leadership role in global climate negotiations.

A critical part of that is the headline figure on emissions cuts. The target that was set for 2020 was 20% but the EU as a group had almost reached the goal by 2012.

Some countries including the UK urged the Commission to propose a bigger target of 50% by 2030, others held out for 35%.

Climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard said that, given the economic climate, the 40% target was a significant advance.

"A 40% emissions reduction is the most cost-effective target for the EU and it takes account of our global responsibility," she said.

"If all other regions were equally ambitious about tackling climate change, the world would be in significantly better shape."

Officials emphasised that the 40% target would have to be achieved "through domestic measures alone", meaning that member states couldn't offset their reductions by paying for carbon cutting in other countries.

Binding targets

The move was welcomed by investors. According to the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, who's members manage 7.5 trillion euros, the new target was a good first step.

"A 40% emissions reduction target is the minimum necessary to keep Europe on course for a low-carbon economy as outlined in the EU's 2050 Roadmap," said chief executive Stephanie Pfeifer.

"Achieving this target is well within member state capabilities and crucial for long-term policy certainty."

Despite this, many environmental campaigners were unhappy.

Brook Riley from Friends of the Earth said the target would make the goal of avoiding dangerous climate change, defined as going above 2C, difficult to achieve.

"We say 40% is really dangerously low. This goal means there's about fifty-fifty chance of going over 2 degrees of global warming," he said.

As well as the headline cut in emissions, the other key plank of the White Paper is renewable energy.

The 2007 targets required 20% of all energy to come from solar, wind or other renewable sources.

  EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard has been criticised by green groups

Germany, which is in the middle of a huge transition to solar and wind, was keen to see these binding targets continue after 2020.

Others, including Poland, Spain and the UK, were keen on greater flexibility in the energy mix. The UK was keen to use nuclear energy as a way of meeting its own emissions reduction goal.

The result is a proposal for a binding target across the EU to provide "at least 27%" of energy from renewable sources.

"It is not just an aspirational thing, it's not just a nice intention, it is a binding target we are proposing," said Ms Hedegaard.

But crucially, there are to be no binding targets for individual member states.

Sensitive issue

The Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said that shale gas was changing the energy landscape in a dramatic way.

There would be no binding EU wide regulations, he said. Instead the EU would set minimum core principles for fracking on environmental safety and health.

There would be a scoreboard for each member state to show how they were meeting the requirements.

"It's a good demonstration of the role the EU should play, setting the cross border rules for environmental health and safety but not meddling in the energy mix that is to be chosen by member states," he said.

This part of the package will have been well received in the UK and in Poland as both countries believe that shale gas will play an important part in providing energy in the future.

The White Paper also details a plan for fixing the EU emissions trading scheme. The price of a tonne of carbon has fallen dramatically in recent years as a result of an oversupply of permits on the market. The Commissioners now argue for a new system that would automatically adjust the supply.

Another element that will upset green campaigners is the proposal to drop the 6% target for greenhouse gas emissions cuts from transport fuels, from 2020.

Nusa Urbancic of campaigning group Transport & Environment believes this move will lead to the end of the Fuel Quality Directive, which she says is a major disappointment.

"The Commission is using the climate and energy package as an excuse to quietly scrap the FQD - the best EU law aimed at lowering emissions from transport fuel," she said.

"This is good news for oil companies and Alberta, with its high-carbon tar sands, but bad news for Europe in our move towards a more sustainable transport system."

All of the proposals put forward by the Commission will now be reviewed by the European Council in March. It is not expected that formal legislative proposals will be agreed before 2015.

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