Russia is way ahead of others in small reactor development: Expert


With the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic putting renewed focus on the dangers of global warming and climate change, and consequently highlighting the urgency of cutting carbon emissions resulting from the use of fossil fuels, Nuclear Asia interviewed an expert  about the benefits of nuclear power, and specifically on small modular reactors (SMRs) that can play a major role in the phasing out of coal-fired thermal power plants, the process of retiring which has been underway for some time in developed economies.

“Small modular reactor (SMR)-based plants, both floating and onshore, open up a great sustainable development opportunity for the whole world, ” said Nikita Mazein, Vice President of Rusatom Overseas, a subsidiary of the Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom. He said that Rosatom has recently deployed the world’s first floating nuclear power plant (NPP) in the Arctic region.

“It is home to 4 million people, half of whom live in Russia, while the region is heavily dependent on fossil fuels in its energy supply. Currently, they are mostly coal and oil, which has an extremely negative impact on the environment. Air and water pollution harms valuable ecosystems, which leads to a reduction in human life expectancy and a complete extinction of some species and living organisms. SMRs can help to mitigate the negative impact and, hopefully, put an end to it. With the help of small nuclear reactors, the Arctic can achieve  net zero emissions as early as 2040. Most of the settlements in the far north are hard to reach and they are isolated ‘energy islands’ cut off from the national grid,” he said. 

Fully commissioned last month, the floating NPP – Akademik Lomonosov – will replace the Chaunskaya power plant that operates by consuming highly polluting brown coal to serve the Chukotka region inhabited by more than 50,000 people in Russia’s Far East. This nuclear power replacement of the Chaunskaya thermal plant will save around 50,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year compared to current levels.

“SMRs, therefore, not only pursue long-term sustainable development – which is impossible without a stable energy supply – but also the region’s energy security. Not only will Akademik Lomonosov contribute to eliminating harmful emissions in the Arctic ecosystem, it will also provide guarantees that the region’s inhabitants will not be left without light and heat in the freezing north,” he said.

The Rosatom official also said that the company is looking at  the Arctic region as one of the possible sites to deploy its first land-based SMR nuclear plant equipped with the new generation RITM series reactors that are due to be connected to the grid by 2027.

“Over the last few decades of the development and operation of different types of small capacity nuclear reactors, we have accumulated over 400 reactor-years of small reactor operation experience on nuclear icebreakers. we are developing a land-based small nuclear power plant of 114 MW. The design is modular and it enables a gradual extension of electric power. The NPP will be able to produce both electricity and heat, and be part of a desalination complex.  We have so far developed the conceptual design of the plant, whose footprint will be as small as 15 acres. ” Mazein said.

According to him, there are several small capacity reactor types in Rosatom’s portfolio of reactor designs, but the new pressurized water RITM series reactors are currently considered the company’s flagship technology.

“We are currently working on an optimized design of the floating NPP based on the RITM series new generation small reactors. It will be more compact and of higher capacity. Each NPP based on RITM series reactors consists of two units with an overall capacity of 100 MW. The plant will be able to generate enough power for an average town with 100,000+ residents,” he added. 

Rosatom’s state-of-the-art icebreakers – Arktika, Sibir and Ural – have already been equipped with new generation the RITM series small reactors. In November 2019, the two RITM series reactors of the Arktika reached first criticality.

According to the IAEA, there are currently more than 50 SMR designs under development, with vendors worldwide developing traditional pressurised water reactors (PWRs), as well as advanced ones such as the molten salt reactors. With the SMR market on an upward trend, there has been considerable progress in SMR development by companies in the US, China, South Korea, Argentina and Europe. 

Mazein said that Rosatom’s SMR development is at a most advanced stage as compared to other vendors, as evident from the commissioning of the world’s first floating NPP equipped with two KLT-40S reactors, besides the installing of six RITM series reactors in the icebreakers Arktika, Sibir and Ural.

Elaborating on the benefits of small reactors, especially for providing energy to remote, isolated areas in terms of their competitive advantage over traditional fuels like diesel, he said: “SMRs are not subject to fuel prices volatility since with SMR plants uranium prices contribute less than 20% to power generation costs. Moreover, uranium prices  are very stable and predictable over the long-term. Therefore, the electricity price becomes very well predictable for the whole NPP lifecycle which is over 60 years.”

Besides, small reactors are a low-carbon energy source with no CO2 emissions and can really contribute to the mitigation of climate change effects. Further, SMRs’ advanced safety systems can make possible their siting near populated areas. Finally, SMRs can reduce a nuclear plant owner’s capital investment due to the lower plant capital cost. “Modular components and factory fabrication can reduce construction costs and duration, which is really important for isolated regions,” he said.

In this connection, he pointed out that a floating nuclear plant combines the traditional advantages of nuclear power with unique benefits such as short construction periods, “no decommissioning on site, long fuel campaign and flexible load following capabilities.” Moreover, it provides the ultimate flexibility of allowing quick relocation to a new place of operation.