Czech research centre warms to prospects of small modular nuclear reactors

Reactor Jules Horowitz in ÚJV Řež, photo: Czech nuclear research and services group ÚJV Řež

A small nuclear power plant outside every city providing heat and power. Alternatively, a safe and reliable power supply for large parts of the undeveloped world or isolated settlements. That’s not science fiction but almost already science fact. And Czech scientists are looking to build on their long running research and expertise in this field by helping to develop a small reactor that in three decades or more could be powering a large part of the world.

Gas cooled reactor
Think of nuclear reactors today and you will probably envisage large concrete masses with massive cooling towers sited a good distance from cities and plugged into complex power grids. But it does not have to be that way. A new generation of small nuclear power plants are now coming on line that could be the answer not just for the developed world but also the developing, because they are a lot simpler to construct in out of the way locations where infrastructure, not just the power infrastructure, is hardly existent. And the’re a lot more flexible to use as well.

To some extent small nuclear reactors have already been with us for some time, think of Russia’s nuclear powered ice breakers, nuclear power submarines, and in Russia at least small nuclear reactors have been used as a power source in some of those isolated Arctic or sub-Arctic sites where no other solution would do. The hitch has been that it has not usually been possible to use those maritime type reactors to civil applications on dry land. But a range of development projects for small nuclear reactors are now in hand around the world. Evžen Losa of the faculty of nuclear reactors at the Czech Technical University in Prague explained how small modular reactors are already taking off.

NuScale's small modular reactor, photo: NuScale Power
“We currently have three projects in development. The most advanced is in China which is a high temperature gas cooled reactor HTRPM, which will be completed and connected to the grid by the end of this year. The second most advanced is a Russian project for a floating power plant KLT-40S which will replace graphite reactors currently operating in Bilibino. This project contains two small modular reactors, each having a power output of 14 MW. The third is a demonstration unit in Argentina. There is a high probability of location of new power plants with small modular reactors is in the USA at the Idaho National Laboratory site where NUScale type reactors should be located. I guess this will be the fourth site with small modulars. The fifth country could be the United Kingdom which now has big plans in nuclear.”

Modular production means that a series of small plants could be produced and costs come down. The small reactors have an inbuilt advantage in that they can be located almost anywhere including near population centres. Evžen Losa again:

“You can build them near the cities – I don’t say in the cities directly – but near them. And the economy of heat supplies increases by the fact. You can also scale the amount of heat or electricity that you produce. Their economic potential is based on those facts.”

A conference about the potential of the small nuclear reactors and the Czech contribution to their development took place last week in Prague. At the same time, government chiefs were meeting with some of the world’s biggest nuclear companies over Czech plans to build more large reactors. But many think the best chance of holding onto and developing Czech nuclear know-how could come from the growing interest in small reactors and their production. Here, the leading Czech nuclear research and services group ÚJV Řež is already playing an important role thanks to its participation in US research thanks to an agreement between the governments of the two countries dating back to 2012. Martin Ruščak is head of the group’s research arm.

“The United States is investing a lot of effort in the last 20 years in the development of salt-based technologies.”

“The United States is investing a lot of effort in the last 20 years in the development of salt-based technologies. The advantage of salt-based technology in reactors is that it is pressureless technology so that it is much more passive and safe. And there are other features which the system has. There is a project financed by the [US] Department of Energy (DoE) for the Oakridge National Laboratory and for universities, the University of California, Berkley, for example, to develop a reactor which is cooled by molten salt. We are participating indirectly in this project as well based on the International Memorandum of Understanding between the US government and the Czech government about the utilization of our facilities, our people, and our knowledge in supporting this research. We are using one of our two research reactors and working together with our American colleagues with very specific material salt which was delivered here from the United States.”

As Ruščak explains, the Czech specialization in this area dates back almost three decades:

Reactor Jules Horowitz in ÚJV Řež, photo: Czech nuclear research and services group ÚJV Řež
“In the end of the 1990s, some very visionary people related to the nuclear research institute came up with the idea that this project could be worth following. And they came up with a project which was financed by the ministry of industry. And then, as they proceeded further they could see that there was something in it. And after 15 years of operation, we have gathered together a lot of knowledge which we can now use for the expansion of this idea.”

And expansion is what the research facility is now looking for. It would like to deepen the research work with the US to cover some of the materials, such as nickel, or even new alloys that would be needed for the highly corrosive salt environment. It would also like to see Czech industrial companies focus on small modular reactors as well so that they could take part in tenders to build them. Britain is already preparing such a tender and Ruščak believes that Czech companies or consortia while not maybe able to bid on their own might find a place in other groupings. He sees the small modular boom as possibly on the horizon within 15 years.

“I believe that in the beginning of the 2030s, end of 2020s, this technology can be licensed for commercial use. What the project in the United States is aiming for is a small modular reactor which is even combined with gas to use the peaks in the [electricity] market and to sell the power at a good price. Our idea here is to expand our work towards building an even smaller reactor which is not designed for a highly developed infrastructure area but for distant areas where there is a need for heat and energy and water purification and light exists. We would like to concentrate the very long story of Czech nuclear technology into a project which in the end would lead to such a solution. We know that we cannot do it ourselves but that is why we are very happy to cooperate with the Americans.”

“It would be fantastic if our cooperation with the US can be expanded, can be extended.”

And there seem to be solid hopes that the US tie can be strengthened. The subject was raised during a Czech mission to the US at the end of last year.

“It would be fantastic if our cooperation with the US can be expanded, can be extended, and we can have another platform, perhaps even larger, to cooperate with our colleagues in MIT [ Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and the Oakridge national laboratories and others, that would be great. And I should say that our political leadership is quite positive to that and what I could hear last December in Washington was that it was very positive from the US side as well. Yes, you never know until it is done, but it looks optimistic.”

As regards the Czech Republic, small modular nuclear plants are seen as a most promising replacement for current coal-fired heat and power plants who days are likely numbered as coal reserves are depleted. ÚJV Řež has already investigated the feasibility of replacing some such plants at their current locations.

“What I am speaking about is not a power generation solution for the Czech Republic. I am speaking about a project that can be developed and sold and used somewhere. Our goal now, our immediate goal, is to create a pre-conceptual design, a feasibility study to see what amount of power we can develop in this small reactor, what kind of fuel we can use, where we get this fuel from – which is another important question, the economics of the solution. These are our first goals. And the first tangible goal if we want to succeed is that sometime around 2023-2024 we want to build what I would call a non-nuclear mock-up to show that the system works.”

“Sometime around 2023-2024 we want to build what I would call a non-nuclear mock-up to show that the system works.”

Perhaps one of the most powerful arguments for the expansion of this research was the conference itself. While some of the speakers disagreed about whether the Czech Republic was doing enough to foster a new generations of nuclear researchers and scientists, most of those speakers were themselves of a fairly advanced in age and overwhelmingly male.