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Are nuclear power plants safe?

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Фото © rosenergoatom.ru/Роман Пышкин

It was 64 years ago when in Obninsk the world’s first connected to a shared electrical network NPP was launched."Forpost" asked an expert in the field of peaceful atom, president of voluntary association "Miners of Russia" Valery Yazev, whether modern plants are safe and what were the reasons for Germany to abandon nuclear generation.

Seven years ago the German authorities announced that their goal is to stop using nuclear power plants by 2022. The main reason for this decision was the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Was it really necessary?

There was a serious discussion about the strategy of energy development in Germany, and it had taken place before the Fukushima accident. This issue was discussed with executives of local gas companies and German politicians, in particular with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The strategy was initially focused on atom and natural gas. However, due to public pressure after Fukushima disaster it was decided to discontinue nuclear energy use. As alternatives to nuclear power, coal generation and renewable power sources were introduced. At the moment Germany increases natural gas consumption, and also supports the construction of Nord Stream 2, as the country is the main beneficiary of this project.

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Фото © Форпост Северо-Запад /

On the other hand, there is another opinion, which suggests returning to nuclear generation, as previously nuclear power accounted for 30% of total consumption in Germany, way more than in Russia. It is rather difficult to effortlessly replace these volumes and tackle an issue of stable energy supply at the expense of other sources.

Other countries are not going to reduce nuclear generation. New nuclear power plants are being built in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary in order to replace the retiring production facilities. China has established an ambitious program implying construction of NPPs. Japan is launching new power units. Russian intergovernmental agreements aiming at constructing new nuclear power plants in India, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other states are worthy of more than 100 billion dollars.

In Russia there is also new NPPS construction program. Is it expected that there will be a presumable growth of nuclear generation in total energy consumption?

There is no increase in energy consumption in our country. Therefore, there is no need for Rosatom to increase generation. It should remain at its curent level of 18-20%. Nevertheless, there is a development, as we need to replace the capacities that are out of work at Beloyarskaya, Kurskaya and Novovoronezhskaya NPPs. In the foreseeable future they will be utilized and then replaced with green lawns. This is a huge amount of work, indeed.

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In addition, we must also build next generation reference reactor blocks in order to demonstrate their effectiveness and safety and to be able to obtain contracts for constructing our plants abroad.

After the Fukushima accident, safety requirements for nuclear power plants have been improved significantly. Safety at NPPs is taken to a new level, but supporting it also results in more expenses. If this trend continues, it is going to be difficult to maintain a ratio between accident rates and production costs. Can something be done about it?

Constructing a NPP is expensive, but the fuel component in exploitation costs of the operating station is much smaller in comparison to gas and coal, let alone the costs for fuel transfer. On the other hand, for example, a turbine island with a turbine for a NPP is three times more costly than for a TPP. Although, there is no actual difference between them.

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It is a global problem, which is present basically everywhere in the world, and particularly in Russia. The MWh price at NPP has also increased as well as it is no longer as small as it was before. It is especially frustrating, if we take into consideration the fact of global competition, for example, with France, where they have a number of cost-efficient projects, and also competition within our country with thermal power plants. A new global trend is the construction of low-power NPPs with a capacity of 100-300 MW. Capital costs are lower, commissioning time is shorter.

Rosatom, its affiliated companies, and Russian Glavgosexpertiza are working together on providing conditions, which would facilitate reducing construction costs by identifying an adequate reliability criteria level. We need new construction materials, new design principles, and manufacturing technologies. It is also necessary to speed up construction of new blocks and decrease the amount of construction work. Of course, we might have gone to extremes with some safety related issues. However, it was not possible to overcome the post-Fukushima syndrome as well as it is impossible to ensure a sustainable future for the energy sector without one hundred percent guarantees. After all, there are enough uranium supplies for many centuries if they are used in a closed nuclear fuel cycle.

Rosatom puts safety of NPP first, and it is not surprising that many countries around the world now want to build nuclear power plants designed in agreement with Russian projects. As a notable example, I may mention a ground-breaking set of agreements concerning construction of a line of reactor blocks. These agreements have been recently signed with China.

This year in St. Petersburg construction of the floating nuclear power plant (FNPP) Akademik Lomonosov has been finished. What are the reasons for the project existance, how safe is it and are there any plans for constructing similar plants in the future?

This is one of my favourite projects. Back in 2006, when I was a chairman of the State Duma committee, together with Boris Gryzlov we have managed to secure funding for the KLT-40S reactor for Academician Lomonosov. As for now, it has been already built and moved to Murmansk for refueling. After that it will be sent to Pevek, Chukotka.

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The essential infrastructure is currently being built there. In fact it is a plug, to which Akademik Lomonosov will be connected. After connection, 70 MW of power will be transmitted to the shore. This event takes place just in time, considering the fact that Bilibinskaya NPP, which supplies this part of the country with electricity, is now running out of resources.

I suppose that concept of mobile nuclear power plants is quite interesting. They can work for quite a long time – 10-15 years without any breaks. Once this period is over, FNPP requires modernization and recharging, and another nuclear power plant can be moved to its place.

Another advantage is that it can be used as a water desalting unit. However, the most important is that after NPP exploitation, no liquid or solid radioactive waste is left on the shore.

Is this power plant cheaper for maintaining?

No, in fact it is more expensive, same as other energy resources. The difference is that in Central Russia kWh price is roughly speaking 3 rubles, and in Chukotka – 13. Therefore, FNPP will highly demanded in those areas, where extensive electricity networks are unavailable. In some cases, FNTP is actually the best solution. For example, China has plans to build 20 floating nuclear power plants; and the first one is to be launched during the next year.

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Фото © rosenergoatom.ru

One of the most interesting industry specific projects that are currently in development in our country is the construction of BREST-300, a lead-cooled fast reactor, in Seversk, which is near Tomsk. What kind of innovative feautures this NPP possess? Will it really be the safest and the most effective in Russia?

The Brest reactor itself has five levels of built-in safety. Not going into details, but no accidents both design basis and beyond design basis are possible there. It can cool himself with absorbing neutrons lead.

Moreover, "Brest" is only a part of the «Proryv» (Breakthrough) Project, which is currently being implemented in Tomsk. In addition to the reactor, it includes a fuel production module (its construction has been almost finished), and a fuel processing module. Both are designed for closing the nuclear fuel cycle. In this module spent nuclear fuel should be recycled and then returned back to the reactor. This project implementation will take 5-6 years and will make NPPs as safe as possible as well as strengthen their economic efficiency.