Nuclear Renaissance is Going Up
Right now, nuclear energy is undergoing a reboot. The generation of nuclear reactors is changing, and so is the strategy for using nuclear power plants (NPPs). Instead of super-powerful energy blocks, efforts are being made to create relatively small modular reactors. These are intended to be cheaper per megawatt of installed capacity, safer, and more easily decommissioned once they've reached the end of their operational life. Simultaneously, the groundwork is being laid for an increase in uranium demand. Russia is already attempting to gain control over a critically large number of uranium deposits.
The shocks from two consecutive energy crises have swiftly changed attitudes toward nuclear energy. The first crisis occurred in 2021, when a prolonged lack of wind led to an electricity deficit in the European energy system and skyrocketing tariffs. Exactly a year later, the second crisis unfolded due to the halt in gas supplies from Russia.
But why the rapid reduction in nuclear power capacities took place? It's because it was considered hazardous due to the risk of radiation contamination and too expensive due to heightened safety requirements. Accidents at Chornobyl and Fukushima, in particular, contributed negatively.
In the 1990s and 2000s, nuclear power plants were widely closed under pressure from environmental movements. Later, they were shuting down due to a mass transition to wind or solar energy. As long as Russian gas was relatively cheap in Europe, nuclear energy was displaced by thermal power stations.
While some debated whether to close the last nuclear power plants, others worked on new reactor types. This was because oil, gas, and coal prices could fluctuate, sometimes making thermal power generation too expensive. And "Green" energy, in terms of cost, turned out to be more expensive than nuclear.
Developers recalled compact reactors similar to those used in submarines. Thus, the concept of a small modular reactor emerged.
Radioisotope thermoelectric generators (another branch of development) were used on satellites or lighthouses where long autonomous operation without maintenance was required. The "Voyagers" also use nuclear "batteries" for their work and can transmit signals from beyond the boundaries of the Solar System until they exhaust their resources. However, they are not too powerful and are expensive.
Most modular reactor projects are in the testing phase, more than 20 of them. There are two actually in commercial operation. One is the HTR-PM project implemented in China, operating at the Shidao NPP in Shandong province. The second project is in Russia. The Russian KLT-40 project consists of two reactors used in nuclear icebreakers, so it's not a new project. This system is used on the floating NPP "Academician Lomonosov" in the port of Pevek in Chukotka. Projects by well-known global companies such as Rolls Royce, Toshiba, Westinghouse, NuScale, and Hitachi are in the final stages.
In some cases, it's more advantageous for a huge consumer, such as a metallurgical plant or a chemical factory, to have its power station than to pay electricity suppliers. Many believe that having their electricity source reduces the risk of supply disruptions. But, in reality, the best solution for a truly large consumer is to have its power source and, before that, backup connections to the main power lines.
Moreover, small modular reactors are interesting for large cities. Perhaps the most significant effect of using modular reactors is the reduction in costs for main power transmission lines and the reduction of losses in such lines. This effect arises from bringing the electricity generation closer to the consumption points.
Safety and Environmental Impact
If there are no accidents involving depressurization, a small modular reactor has minimal emissions. There's absolutely no "carbon footprint," unlike a thermal power station. However, it's also absent in traditional NPPs. In this sense, nuclear energy can be considered almost as "green" as solar and wind.
The less radioactive material in the reactor, the less potential harm in accidents. It's easier to isolate the material in a small reactor than in a "large" NPP where the fuel mass is measured in tens of tons. The more compact design reduces location requirements and simplifies safety needs.
Building an energy system based on small reactors allows for assembly from individual elements and scalability. Initially, one module can be installed on a specific site. If there's a need for increased capacity, another can be added. This minimises the requirement for immediate substantial investments.
A greater number of less powerful yet secure energy blocks provide flexibility and manoeuvrability. Servicing or repairing one mini-reactor has a lesser impact on the overall energy system compared to the shutdown of a million-kilowatt energy block. Additionally, restarting a mini-reactor requires much less effort than restarting a traditional nuclear power plant (NPP) unit.
Let's assume a reactor operates without unexpected issues. Nevertheless, residual radioactivity remains in its elements after a few years of operation. This isn't extraordinary; peaceful nuclear energy has faced similar challenges for over 60 years since the widespread use of energy nuclear reactors began. However, unlike traditional reactors, modular ones are more compact and efficient, resulting in smaller-scale decommissioning efforts.
Of course, the challenge of safe disposal persists. It's worth considering sites of existing nuclear stations, replacing reactors that have fulfilled their lifespan by small modular reactors. The use of sites from decommissioned thermal power stations or sections of chemical or metallurgical plants is also makes sense.
Physical Security Against Terrorism
Clearly, implementing a modular nuclear reactor programme will lead to a significant increase in sites hosting such energy installations. Controlling access to approximately 4-5 hypothetical traditional NPPs is considerably simpler than monitoring a hundred sites with modular reactors. This raises the question: what could be the consequences of unauthorized access to a reactor? Stealthily stealing a reactor is practically impossible. It's a complex engineering task that requires time and expertise. The arrival of a armed response team would happen faster than they could shut down the reactor. Not to mention the challenges of dismantling it.
Even in the improbable event of components containing nuclear fuel being stolen, using them to create a conventional nuclear bomb is impossible without further complicated processing at an enrichment plant. However, these components could be used for a "dirty bomb." On the other hand, if someone attempts to disassemble elements with nuclear fuel without robotic equipment, they would receive a massive dose of radiation. Terrorists might find it easier to seek suitable radioactive materials elsewhere.
Dealing with Nuclear Waste
The more reactors, the greater the consumption of nuclear fuel. As it becomes less energy-efficient over time and is contaminated by decay products, it needs replacing. For NPPs operating on low-enriched uranium, fuel replacement occurs every 3-4 years, with partial replacement of elements containing nuclear fuel annually.
Some experts believe that "large" NPPs are more economical in terms of waste volume, while others argue that, conversely, waste volumes from small modular reactors will be smaller in terms of energy produced. Nevertheless, these wastes need processing or storage. In this sense, not much will change.
Control over Nuclear Technologies
Most existing small modular reactor projects are expected to be operational by 2030. Will there be an increased demand for nuclear fuel? Perhaps, but a rapid acceleration in nuclear fuel production is unlikely. The key lies in stringent control over the production and use of fresh fuel and the disposal of spent fuel.
For this purpose, there's an organisation called the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency). Numerous international agreements, informal cooperation among certain intelligence agencies, aim to prevent the transformation of the "peaceful atom" into a "military" one. Of course, this doesn't deter dictatorships like North Korea or Iran, but it significantly hampers the development and production of nuclear weapons.
It is the non-proliferation principle that maintains a certain oligopoly in the global nuclear fuel market. In other words, only a few companies possess the necessary technologies and licenses for both production and supply of fuel to consumers. The entire lifecycle of fuel is rigorously controlled and traced. The capacities of global players are sufficient to supply new networks of small nuclear reactors. Raw material processors would have enough – uranium concentrate.
Economics and a Bit of Global Politics
The prospect of developing new nuclear energy brings about significant changes. The growing demand for fuel will lead to a certain deficit in uranium ores.
Russia has its own deposits (some of them yet untapped), and it continues its expansion over border. Uranium One, a company within the state-owned "Rosatom," engages in uranium extraction beyond the Russian Federation. It's not just about profits; it's about controlling the deposits.
Often, this doesn't even have a distinct economic purpose; it's part of Russia's foreign policy. "Rosatom," still not under international sanctions, through its subsidiary, acquires uranium deposits to control nuclear fuel prices.
As a result, the largest deposit in Kazakhstan—Budionovske—came under the control of "Rosatom." Russia now secures the second position globally in controlled uranium reserves. If "Rosatom" gains control over the Kazakh state company "Kazatomprom," it will rise to the top. Moreover, the military coup in Niger also bears a Russian trace; this country ranks third in Africa in uranium extraction. Other pro-Russian African countries supported the new government.
The infamous Russian PMC "Wagner's" activities in Africa also target controlling deposits in countries that have experienced military coups in the last 3-4 years. When "Rosatom" displaces the French company Orano from Niger and other African countries, where it's engaged in uranium extraction, the control will become global. This might resemble what happened with Russian gas in Western Europe over the past decade.
So, currently, two challenges hinder the nuclear renaissance—technological and geopolitical. Surprisingly, the technological challenge is the lesser problem because developed countries actively develop reactors of the so-called fourth generation to overcome it. These are design principles that enable greater safety with less demand for fissile materials. At least, the industrial launch of such new principle-based reactors is planned by the end of the 2020s, not later than in 5-6 years.
For instance, in the United States, more than 15 projects of small modular reactors, both research and commercial, are at various stages of licensing in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
However, overcoming the geopolitical challenge will require a new design of the world order. This is an extremely complex matter, as evidenced by Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which, by the way, is part of the global uranium supplier's club. As long as authoritarian regimes can play their games, sustainable development and beautiful technological trends in the energy sector have to wait.