Small modular reactor (SMR) – based nuclear power plants, both floating and onshore, open up a great sustainable development opportunity for the whole world including India. In an interview with ET’s Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury Nikita Mazein, Vice President of Rusatom Overseas (Rusatom Overseas is a company within the Rosatom State Corporation Group) explains how small reactors can play a big role in phasing out coal-fired power plants.
The first question relates to the world's biggest urgent issue of climate change and on the role small reactors can play in phasing out coal-fired power plants (US and other countries have retired many coal-fired plants).
Small modular reactor (SMR) - based plants, both floating and onshore, open up a great sustainable development opportunity for the whole world.
As you know, Rosatom has successfully deployed the world’s first floating NPP in the Arctic region. It is home to 4 million people, with the region being 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 by 2040.
Half of these 4 million people live in Russia. Most of the settlements in the Far North are hard-to-reach; they are isolated ‘energy islands’ cut off from the national grid.
The Akademik Lomonosov floating NPP will replace the Chaunskaya Power Plant that currently operates by burning brown coal – probably the most harmful type of fuel.
There are more than 50,000 people who live and work in the Chukotka Region. SMRs therefore not only pursue long-term sustainable development – which is impossible without a stable energy supply – but also the region’s energy security. As a result, 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 Far North.
We see the Arctic region as one of the possible sites to deploy our first land-based SMR NPP equipped with new generation RITM series reactors that is due to be connected to the grid by 2027.
Please describe the current state of SMR development in Russia.
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. Needless to say, reactor operation conditions on ice breakers are quite severe, which makes this experience really unique.
With this track record, we are proud to have developed the world’s first floating nuclear power plant (FNPP) called Akademik Lomonosov. The construction of the floating power unit is now complete with all safety tests successfully passed and licenses obtained. The floating power unit was towed to its place of operation, the town of Pevek, and began generating electricity for the grid at the end of 2019.
We are currently working on an optimized design of the floating nuclear power plant based on our flagship energy solution – 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 MWe. The plant will be able to generate enough power for an average town with 100,000+ residents.
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 our flagship technology.
At the same time, we are developing a land-based small nuclear power plant of 114 MWe. 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.
Our new universal icebreakers Arktika, Sibir and Ural are already equipped with new generation small reactors – the RITM series. In November 2019, the two RITM series reactors of Arktika icebreaker reached first criticality.
Could you provide a synthesis of the work being done by private companies worldwide in this area?
According to IAEA, currently there are more than 50 SMR designs under development for different applications. Vendors are developing traditional PWRs as well as advanced reactors, such as molten salt reactors. The SMR market is currently on the rise. The considerable progress in the development of SMRs is made by companies from the US, China, South Korea, Argentina and European countries.
SMRs developed by Rosatom are certainly at the most advanced stage compared with other vendors. As you know, in December 2019, world’s first floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov equipped with two KLT-40S reactors was successfully connected to the grid in Pevek and started supplying electricity. In addition, six RITM series reactors were manufactured and installed on state-of-the-art icebreakers Arktika, Sibir and Ural. Two RITM series reactors of Arktika icebreaker successfully passed all power up tests during dock-side trials.
How are small reactors specifically suited for setting up in remote areas from all aspects - cost, maintenance and safety?
SMRs can be a perfect solution to provide energy for remote/isolated areas for several reasons. First, SMRs can be more competitive compared with traditional sources of energy for isolated areas. I am speaking about diesel. SMRs are not subject to fuel prices volatility as with SMR NPP uranium prices contribute less than 20% to power generation cost. Moreover, prices on uranium are very stable and predictable in a long-term period. Therefore, the electricity price becomes very well predictable for the whole NPP lifecycle which is over 60 years. Second, small reactors are a low-carbon energy source with no CO2 emissions and can really contribute to the mitigation of climate change effects. Third, SMRs advanced safety systems can make possible their siting near the population. 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.
With Russia having begun operating the world's first floating nuclear power plant (FNPP) could you eleaborate on its advantages as a small reactor?
In December 2019, world’s first floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonosov started supplying electricity. But the commercial operation is planned for the summer 2020 when the FNPP starts supplying heat.
FNPPs combine the traditional advantages of nuclear power with its unique benefits such as: short period of construction works on the site, no decommissioning on site, long fuel campaign, flexible load following capabilities. What is more, it provides ultimate flexibility and can be quickly relocated to a new place of operation.
The plant will enable reliable, safe and affordable energy supply and ensure sustainable development of the key industries in the destination region, Chukotka. The FNPP will replace Chaunsk coal-fired power plant, saving about 50,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year compared to current levels.