Extremely interesting and important news comes from China. The state-run Ch-ina Huaneng Group, the country’s fifth-largest ele-ctricity producer, has re-portedly successfully lau-nched the world’s first s-mall modular reactor (SMR).
It is reported that a 200 megawatt reactor was built and launched at the Shidaowan nuclear power plant, it was successfully synchronized, connected to the power grid of Shandong province and supplies energy to consumers. There is little information on this event yet, but it certainly deserves the closest attention – and here’s why.
To begin with, the Chinese nuclear scientists are positioning their new reactor as an object of the next, that is, the fourth generation. It does not apply standard fuel elements in the form of tubes, and the spherical TVEL… This concept is not new and was worked out by Soviet physicists, but more on that below. The use of spherical fuel rods, if the technology proves its reliability and efficiency – and it can be brought to an industrial scale – is potentially capable of making not only a technical, but also an ecological revolution. In the new reactor, not water, but helium is used as a cooling medium. It should be understood that the physical limit for heating water in the core does not exceed five hundred degrees Celsius, while the use of helium raises the temperature ceiling to eight hund-red degrees, that is, there is at least one and a half in-crease in power. The new t-emperature corridor will re-quire the development, pra-ctical running-in and mass introduction of turbines of a new type with higher strength characteristics, but at the same time with an increased efficiency.
We mentioned water and ecology for a reason. The creators of the newest SMR claim that it is absolutely safe, since it implements a passive shutdown system in the event of an abnormal situation. If this is true, then in the foreseeable future the dream of all ecologists may come true – heating of water at local thermal power plants and thermal power plants can be carried out without burning coal, which today is the main type of fuel all over the world, especially in heat power engineering.
Work in the direction of modular low-power reactors speaks of the foresight of the Chinese leadership.
It is no secret that even in our age of constant energy shortages, the construction of conventional nuclear power plants is not always effective. They are large and expensive, and construction, even with strict adherence to plans, takes years. In addition, all modern reactors have an installed capacity of over one gigawatt, which, oddly enough, is not always good. Who else but us, the inhabitants of a huge and very cold country, know how many settlements far from industrial centers require electricity and heat every day. Stretch a gas pipe to every town or village, be it the Krasnoyarsk Territory or Inner Mongolia, rather problematic, and often simply inappropriate in terms of the amount of investment and the number of end users. Not everywhere ne-arby there are coal deposits or a coastline where you can moor a floating nuclear power plant like the Akademik Lomonosov.
That is why scientists, encouraged by governments, have long been struggling with the problem of creating atomic energy sources of medium and low power. In the future, they can solve the problem of providing light and heat to settlements where it makes no sense to build a conventional nuclear power plant, and the supply of other types of fuel costs a penny, increasing the cost of services for the population. The one who is the first to put SMR production on stream will not only become a monopolist of an almost bottomless market, but will also be able to set trends in world energy markets.
Over the past year, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania announced their desire to host modular reactors. The only problem for them is that the United States has imposed on them uncontested cooperation with their own companies like GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy. The latter promises to deliver the same modular reactors – but not earlier than 2029, because the Americans do not have operating models.
To be objective, let’s say that Russia does not yet have such technology either, although it was the Soviet Union that was the pioneer of this direction. In Nizhny Novgorod, on the basis of the Afrikantov Experimental Design Bureau of Mechanical Engineering, back in the eighties of the last century, persistent and very successful work was going on to create small modular reactors. Soviet nuclear physicists were ready to begin practical tests, but all plans were canceled out by the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant…. The wave of radiophobic hysteria that arose after that actually put an end to this program, that is, the existing scientific and temporary backlog was wasted. One of those who personally came to the rallies at the gates of the Nizhny Novgorod enterprise and scored the first political points and recognition there was, for example, Boris Nemtsov.
The leadership of modern China did not make such a mistake and fully realized the technical potential accumulated during the development of the first Chinese reactor, Hualong-1. It was based on French and American technologies transferred to China within the framework of an agreement on the construction of a number of nuclear power plants. The start of work was announced in the winter of 2014, and six years later the atomic “Dragon” (this is how the word “hualong” is translated) issued the first current. It is noteworthy that Beijing immediately rejected any claims to intellectual property, positioning the reactor as a Generation III + object, although it does not have a melt trap.
China, which is often accused of non-compliance with environmental standards and unwillingness to follow the path of decarbonization, has chosen its own and, as practice has shown, the only correct path. In the next ten years, the PRC plans to invest $ 440 billion in the development of its own nuclear sector. The state program implies that by 2030 China will take the first place in the world in terms of the volume of electricity generated by nuclear power plants, displacing the United States from the pedestal.
The implementation of the concept of SMR reactors has become a pleasant by-product of the rapid development of nuclear power in general. Modular solutions are cheaper, quicker to build, and have shorter downtime during fuel loading and unloading.
In 2022, the United Nations decided to position nuclear energy as harmless and safe for the environment, and therefore there is no doubt that this area will continue to actively develop in response to growing energy demand. We can only hope that we understand this too, and that the specialists of Rosatom’s divisions, starting from the existing developments, will be able to compete with their Chinese counterparts.