Small nuclear power plants will help supply energy to remote territories

5 october 2016 | Rossiyskaya Gazeta

More and more countries are pinning their hopes on small nuclear reactors that are soon going to be able to compete with power plants utilizing other kinds of fuel. Russia is no exception: it is currently leading the global technological development in this domain, even though only four types of such reactors are in use in Russia today. In the future as they are deployed to new territories, small nuclear reactors will help supply electricity and heat to isolated and much less populated areas of the country. That is the conclusion that Analytical Center experts make in the new issue of their energy bulletin.

Aleksander Martynyuk
Aleksander Martynyuk
Department for Strategic Studies in Energy

Experts believe that the new improved designs that are currently at the R&D stage or are just being introduced are going to make small nuclear reactors a very enticing option. These new plants are expected to be far superior to the existing small capacity nuclear reactors in terms of safety and economic efficiency. Most of them feature a modular design, the bulletin points out.

“The main fuel for nuclear power plants today is uranium. In Russia uranium is mined in Chita and Kurgan oblasts, in Buryatia. However, Russia is consuming more uranium than it is producing. The shortage is covered by importing uranium, primarily from Kazakhstan. Normally, only small amounts of plutonium are added to nuclear fuel. And yet, today many countries have plans to significantly expand the use of plutonium in the nuclear fuel cycle. Russia is no exception,” Analytical Center expert Alexander Martinyuk told a Rossiyskaya Gazeta correspondent. In his opinion, the use of uranium and plutonium allows small capacity nuclear power plants to avoid the drawbacks typical of power plants relying on renewable energy sources such as wind, water and sun light. When the wind dies down, wind mills can only generate energy in spurts.

Another important aspect to consider is the burying of nuclear waste and dismantling of nuclear reactors. “Russia has a lot of experience and possesses some of the most advanced technologies when it comes to safe handling of spent nuclear fuel from power plant reactors because Russia has had to deal with the heritage of the Soviet nuclear project that generated large amounts of nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel,” Mr. Martinyuk said. Russian specialists managed to gain this experience as they were implementing a program to ensure nuclear and radioactive safety in 2008 through 2015. In that period 28.5 thousand nuclear fuel assemblies from various types of nuclear reactors and 800 nuclear fuel assemblies from nuclear submarines were processed and buried. This program still continues and is planned to continue until 2030 so there should be no problems with burying nuclear waste, the expert believes.

According to the analyst, more than 18% of all electricity produced in Russia is produced by big NPPs. The program to develop a single national grid in 2016-2022 calls for the share of nuclear generation to increase to 20.9% by the time the implementation of the program is completed. “The share of small NPPs in total power generation capacity will remain rather small in the foreseeable future,” the expert believes. With new small reactors to replace old NPPs in Chukotka taken into account, the share of small capacity nuclear generation in total nuclear generation in Russia will be 0.2%. “The reason for such a small number is that Russia is still only using small capacity reactors on icebreakers and nuclear submarines. In Soviet times using small capacity reactors to generate power for the consumer market was unprofitable because CAPEX per unit of power produced was too high. As a result, almost all of Russia’s NPPs have large or medium capacity reactors of over 500 MW. There is an exception, though, the Chukotka nuclear power plant has a capacity of 48 MW and uses four 12 MW nuclear reactors,” Mr. Martinyuk explained.

Even though many developed nations (the US, France, Japan, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and others) are cutting back their nuclear programs, small capacity nuclear generation has a bright future, the experts are convinced. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 and the Fukushima incident in 2011 are the two main reasons why people generally tend to be wary of nuclear power. But those were both big power plants. Japan has already announced it is revising its program to cut back nuclear power and will be commissioning a number of NPPs in the near future. “As for small capacity NPPs, those are probably going to be primarily in demand in countries that have to supply power to remote areas (such as Argentina) and in the future they can be widely used in water freshening plants primarily in the Middle East and Southern Asia,” the expert summed up.

For more see the bulletin Nuclear Power: High Hopes of Small Reactors.

For other issues of the Energy Bulletin, see the Publications section.