‘Nuclear Spring’ – harbinger of a sustainable future 

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With nuclear energy currently in a revival mode around the world, the theme of this year’s Atomexpo — the global nuclear industry’s leading exhibition-cum-business platform organised by the Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom — was “Atomic Spring: Creating a Sustainable Future”. 

The 12th Atomexpo International Forum was held during November 21-22 at the Russian seaside city of Sochi. This year, the forum was attended by over 2,500 people from 65 countries.   

The context of the current “nuclear renaissance” worldwide is the ongoing energy crisis resulting from fossil fuel price increases, supply instability, as well as the logistics and technological chain disruptions. 

Last month, the German federal cabinet approved a bill proposed by Chancellor Olaf Scholz to extend the operation of the country’s last three operating nuclear reactors until mid-April 2023. Japan, which had halted the development of nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima accident, now plans to revive its nuclear energy sector and is considering building new nuclear power units.  

Among other recent policy initiatives favouring nuclear energy, South Korea has reversed the decision of its previous leadership to close the country’s nuclear power plants. France and Britain intend to increase the respective share of nuclear power generation in their energy mix by 22 and 24 gigawatts (GW), while the US is extending the life of its nuclear power plants (NPPs). 

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, earlier this month, the global nuclear industry, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) organised various initiatives to highlight nuclear energy as central to tackling the climate crisis.  

COP 27 witnessed several events dedicated to the role of nuclear energy and nuclear technologies in helping countries and regions overcome challenges in sustainable development. The COP 26 summit in Glasgow, UK, last year was a landmark in cementing the integral role of nuclear energy in meeting the world’s decarbonisation goals.   

An Atomexpo plenary session at Sochi involving political and industry leaders from various countries discussed the implications of the current crisis in the energy market and concluded that nuclear power can be harnessed to optimally mitigate the serious energy problems confronting global economies and drive development for decades to come. 

The plenary session was attended by Hungary’s Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Péter Szijjártó, Brazil’s ENBPar Corporation CEO Ney Zanella dos Santos, Belarusian Energy Minister Viktor Karankevich, Turkish Deputy Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Alparslan Bayraktar, Bangladesh’s Science and Technology Minister Yeafesh Osman, and Rosatom Director General (DG) Alexey Likhachev. 

Likhachev spoke about Rosatom projects for the development of nuclear generation in Russia and in various countries around the world. The company is currently building 23 power units abroad in eight countries and has already signed intergovernmental agreements on 34 nuclear reactors.  

According to Likhachev, over the next 20-30 years, Rosatom’s portfolio will see the largest growth among new member countries of the “nuclear club” such as Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, that are working to transition to low-carbon sources, as well as amongst various African countries that have concluded their initial agreements with Rosatom and are already outlining future projects. 

Hungary’s Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister, Péter Szijjártó, said his country is building a pragmatic and well-thought-out energy strategy that will not only allow it to develop its nuclear industry and gain more autonomy on energy prices, but also reduce its carbon footprint. 

Brazil’s ENBPar Corporation CEO Ney Zanella dos Santos explained that the country is endowed with a lot of sun and wind and intends to further develop these two forms of renewable energy. He also said that about 90 percent of the country’s energy comes from hydroelectric power plants and stressed that the conditions were also favourable for the development of alternative energy sources.  

“Nuclear energy is another resource that will allow us to expand our horizons”, the CEO said, adding that there are good prospects for the widespread use of small modular nuclear reactors in remote areas of Brazil. He also told the plenary about the Brazilian nuclear plant at Angra, two units of which are already in operation, while the under construction third unit is expected to be commissioned in 2027. Brazil proposes to build a new nuclear plant in the north of the country and intends to add about 10 GW of nuclear capacity over the next 30 years, the Brazilian added.  

Belarusian Energy Minister Viktor Karankevich said in his speech that the country already has an operating nuclear plant built with Rosatom assistance which has generated 9.6 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity since its commissioning. 

“Expected to be launched soon, the second unit of the Belarusian NPP will significantly reduce CO2 emissions”, Karankevich said, adding that “further cooperation with Rosatom in areas such as scientific and technical support for the operation of nuclear power plants, the handling of spent nuclear fuel, and the training of personnel for nuclear energy is expected to expand.” 

Making a forecast about the nuclear industry, the Rosatom DG said that along with the development of Generation 3+ power units, the next 10-15 years will also see the development of small modular reactor technology. 

“Then, the transition to a dual-component nuclear power system will be resolved by the mid-2050s with the simultaneous operation of thermal and fast reactors with a closed nuclear fuel cycle”, Likhachev said.  

“As for the long-term, that is 50 years or more, we will rely on thermonuclear fusion technologies. I am sure that humanity will gain a unique source of energy, a ‘man-made sun’, which will contribute to sustainable economic development and improve the quality of life for millions of people”, he added.  

Rosatom is developing a range of new fuel technologies that include work on fast neutron reactors, and on the closed nuclear fuel cycle, which is based on fabrication of fresh uranium-plutonium fuel from reprocessed irradiated fuel.    

The company has already started construction of a 300 MW nuclear power unit equipped with the BREST-OD-300 fast neutron reactor at the Siberian Chemical Combine in Seversk.    

Both the fuel fabrication and the reactor units form part of the Pilot Demonstration Energy Complex (PDEC) being built at the Siberian Chemical Plant by Rosatom’s fuel arm TVEL. The PDEC construction is part of the strategic “Proryv” (‘Breakthrough’ in Russian) project. It will include three linked facilities, making up a closed nuclear fuel cycle at one site — the fuel fabrication/re-fabrication unit, the 300 MW nuclear power plant with the fast neutron BREST-OD-300 reactor, and the unit for spent fuel reprocessing.   

According to TVEL, “after reprocessing, the irradiated fuel from the reactor will be sent for refabrication (that is, reproduction into fresh fuel), thereby giving this system the means to gradually become practically autonomous and independent of external resources supplies”.  The nuclear power industry’s resource base will practically become inexhaustible thanks to the infinite reprocessing of nuclear fuel. At the same time, future generations will be spared the problem of accumulating spent nuclear fuel.   

Although commercially viable nuclear fusion power is still some distance away, there are various ongoing experiments seeking to overcome the formidable challenges. The most ambitious among these is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project involving 35 countries. The ITER machine, assembly of which got underway in Cadarache, France, in July 2020, is designed to replicate the fusion power of the Sun to enable generation of clean unlimited energy, and the first ultra-hot plasma is expected to be generated in late 2025. 

In December 2020, South Korea announced that its magnetic fusion device called the Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research (KSTAR) set a record by reaching a temperature of over 100 million degrees Celsius for a period of 20 seconds. In comparative terms, KSTAR was able to attain 6.6 times the temperature of the Sun, which radiates at a temperature of only 15 million degrees Celsius. KSTAR has set a target to increase the plasma operation performance to 300 seconds by the year 2025.  

Tokamak (derived from the Russian words for “toroidal magnetic confinement”) devices, originally developed in Russia, are used to recreate fusion reactions that occur in the Sun. As per the Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety, there are about 250 tokamak devices around the world. 

Also in December 2020, the China National Nuclear Corporation announced that it had switched on its “artificial Sun”, which managed to operate at 150 million degrees Celsius.