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Small Alternative
August 29, 2013   
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Small modular reactors (SMRs) could be an alternative to big nuclear power plants—especially in countries such as Poland that do not have conventional nuclear power plants.

Once developed, these small reactors would be able to supply factories or even small towns with electricity and heat. Researchers from Poland’s National Center for Nuclear Research in ¦wierk near Warsaw have undertaken to build a kind of small modular reactor known as a high-temperature reactor (HRT).

Research into small modular reactors is well advanced in various countries. Prototypes have been built and tested out by companies including Babcock & Wilcox and several other U.S. corporations financially supported by the government to the tune of $425 million. Companies in China and Japan as well as South Korea and Russia have followed suit. A reactor built by Japan’s Toshiba is undergoing trials and expected to be installed in Alaska. European companies have also taken up the challenge. Poland could be one of the pioneers among the world’s nations using small reactors as an energy source for industry and for district heating systems in cities.

Although they are unlikely to become the primary source of energy, small modular reactors are a good alternative to big nuclear power plants that often cost in excess of $200 billion to build—especially for countries that do not have conventional nuclear power plants.

With a capacity of 100-300 megawatts on average, SMRs will be able to supply factories or even small towns with electricity as well as heat. Their main selling point is that they are safe for their surroundings, their supporters say. This is especially important because societies in many countries are mindful of nuclear disasters such as that at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, and the disaster that struck Fukushima in Japan in the wake of an earthquake.

The Polish scientists from the National Center for Nuclear Research have undertaken to develop a reactor named NC21-R as part of a strategic program financed by the National Center for Research and Development (NCBiR) called “Technologies to support the development of safe nuclear power.” The team from the National Center for Nuclear Research is being supported in their project by colleagues from several renowned universities aided by several major industrial plants in Poland. The researchers’ main task is to examine the conditions for launching and operating small reactors. The work is being coordinated by the AGH University of Science and Technology in Cracow, and the researchers are led by nuclear physicist Prof. Ludwik Pieńkowski.

Among the companies and institutions involved in the project are energy giant Tauron Polska Energia, copper producer KGHM Polska MiedĽ, engineering company Prochem, the Central Mining Institute in Katowice, the Institute for Chemical Processing of Coal in Zabrze, the Fertilizer Research Institute in Puławy, the Silesian University of Technology in Gliwice, the University of Warsaw, and the Pomerania Special Economic Zone.

The project under way aims to build a high-temperature reactor with a capacity not exceeding 300 megawatts. The main advantage of the reactor will be its high level of safety, the researchers say—thanks to the use of a ceramic core as well as the use of helium for cooling and the possibility of instantly halting the reactor. In case of an emergency, the reactor, in the shape of a cylinder with a diameter of 6 meters and a height of over 10 meters, can be turned off instantly—switching it off will take no longer than switching off the light at home.

“Of course, safety is the most important advantage, but there are more pluses—for example, business benefits,” says Pieńkowski. “With large power plants with a capacity of 1,000-3,000 megawatts, it is difficult to expect small industry to be a shareholder in such projects. Small industry will rather be interested in our high-temperature reactor—because it is smaller and because it can be easily transported by rail or road in whole to its destination. It is also many times cheaper to operate. Our aim is to ensure that electricity [generated by the reactor] does not cost more than $3 per kilowatt. So if there are producers willing to build such small reactors, there is room for quite a few such facilities in Poland.”

Launching the production of small reactors will help create new jobs, the researchers say. And if, for any reason, any of the HTRs needs to be shut down, under no circumstances will that paralyze the economy, they add.

According to Pieńkowski, the odds are that Poland’s first HTR reactor will be up and running by 2023.

At the end of last year, the Polish project won a competition organized by the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), scoring 14 out of a maximum 15 points. The European Atomic Energy Community is an international organization founded in 1958 with the purpose of creating a specialist market for nuclear power in Europe, developing nuclear energy and distributing it to its member states while selling the surplus to non-member states. It is legally distinct from the European Union (EU), but has the same membership, and is governed by the EU’s institutions.

In January, work began on the so-called HRT-PL cogeneration reactor for simultaneous production of electricity and heat. Poland’s National Center for Research and Development (NCBiR) has provided zl.6 million for the first stage of the project, which involves three years of research work. The NCBiR also promised to co-finance further research and development work to be conducted jointly by science and industry. This means that small modular reactors will take some time before they become commercially available. But they are well worth the wait, the researchers say.

Teresa Bętkowska
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