Nuclear energy in the form of small reactors could help transform life in remote and inhospitable regions.
The Arctic port city of Pevek in Russia’s thinly populated Chukotka Autonomous Region, located over 5,500 kilometers away from Moscow and home to just over 4,000 people, will soon be home to a conspicuous new resident: the Akademik Lomonosov, a large ship bearing a small nuclear plant that will serve as a power station for the community.
State-owned energy agency Rosatom built the Akademik Lomonosov and sees it as the first of a series of floating nuclear power stations serving remote locations across the planet. Consisting of a 144-by-30-meter barge, it bears two 35 megawatt nuclear reactors similar to those used to power Russia’s icebreaker ships. Earlier this month, technicians at the Murmansk headquarters of that icebreaker fleet began loading the plant’s reactors onboard.
The reactors will produce enough power for as many as 200,000 people living in isolated areas with few readily available power sources. Pevek currently gets much of its energy from the 70-year-old Chaunskaya thermal coal plant, which the new facility will finally take offline.
“The idea is to have low-capacity, mobile power plants that can be used in the Russian Arctic where large amounts of electricity aren’t needed,” according to Sergey Kondratyev of the Institute for Energy and Finance in Moscow. “The alternatives are coal, gas and diesel. But diesel is very costly.”
Could the Akademik Lomonosov be a harbinger of things to come in the Arctic when it comes to energy generation?
The Arctic’s inhospitable climate tends to make renewables like solar and wind energy less than ideal options across much of the region, which routinely leaves fossil fuel-powered alternatives. These, however, produce plenty of CO2, thereby exacerbating the effects of climate change. According to Vitaly Trutnev, who has overseen the construction and operation of floating nuclear power stations at Rosatom, seaborne offshore reactors could one day soon save 50,000 tons in annual carbon dioxide emissions. That may not seem like much on a global scale, but even modest gains make a cumulative difference.
Take, for example, the town of Kotzebue in Alaska near the Arctic Circle. The 3,000 people in this remote community remain unconnected to any transmission grid. Until recently, they relied on diesel fuel-powered generators. Now, however, the community has started harnessing the power of wind. The town’s Kotzebue Electric Association has been using wind turbines for two decades to push back against increases in the price of diesel fuel.
“This strategy has brought success: in 2015 its wind turbines enabled KEA to cut its diesel consumption by 250,000 gallons and save $900,000,” Power Engineering International, an industry journal, explains. “Energy is essential to the survival and viability of communities in the far north and KEA recognizes the impact of rising diesel prices – its fuel bills rose from $1.5 million to $6 million between 2002 and 2008. To counter such volatility, KEA is committed to making every conceivable effort to reduce its dependence on diesel and has invested in wind energy.”
But wind energy, being prone to the vagaries of harsh Arctic weather, isn’t suitable as a steady source of power in all areas or all year round. This is why many energy industry experts think small reactors, like those in service at Rosatom’s floating nuclear plant, could point the way forward in remote regions worldwide.
Not that this necessarily has to be a case of either/or. Renewables and nuclear energy can and should be complimentary features of energy plans in any part of the world. “It seems that we all want to find one solution. Some think renewables is the solution and if you ask which renewable then you’ll have a discussion on whether it’s solar or hydro etc.,” Xavier Ursat, senior executive Vice-President of the EDF Group in France, recently noted at the World Nuclear Exhibition (WNE) in Paris.
“Others say nuclear is the solution. I don’t think there’s one solution,” Ursat went on to explain. “The solution is the complement of many solutions and the fact that we need nuclear plus renewable or renewable plus nuclear. And within nuclear, within 20 to 30 years we will have competitive large reactors due to the fleet effect.” Smaller reactors promise to be more nimble and flexible than their larger counterparts.
Tom Greatrex, a British Labor politician who is chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association in the UK, echoed those views. “(Renewables and nuclear energy) all have their parts to play in getting to an electricity system that meets the increasing demands placed on it as electrification of transport happens, but in a way which provides a secure and reliable supply,” Greatrex said at the Paris expo. “That needs a range of technologies to deliver that. It’s not about one versus the other. It’s about how you get the best combination of these.”
Access to clean, but reliable, sources of energy is vital for residents in regions with hostile environments. In the Arctic, locals tend to consume large amounts of energy for heating and lighting, especially during long and dark winter months. Unfortunately, the remote region is emerging as a new field in energy development mostly because of the untapped fossil fuels there. The frigid northern region is estimated to contain almost a quarter of the planet’s undiscovered reserves of oil and gas, both offshore and onshore, as well as vast mineral reserves.
Yet the Arctic is hardly the only new frontier for sustainable energy packages. Many other remote corners of the planet are home to local communities would benefit from harnessing the combined power of the sun, wind, and nuclear power. The Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) gaining traction in power industry circles come with the benefits of lower capital investment costs, enhanced safety features, greater scalability and improved flexibility in their siting, making them more suitable for remote locations.
In locations where weather conditions make it difficult to harness of the power of sun or wind, these reactors may even provide a preferable solution over renewable energy sources. “We read a lot in the papers about very competitive renewable costs, of $30 or $40 per MWH,” Dr. Jan Horst Keppler, a professor of Economics at Paris Dauphine University and a senior adviser at OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, noted at the WNE.
“We need to keep those in perspective mainly because these are very often projects that are options and that will only be undertaken if prices will rise,” he went on to caution. “In addition, these are projects that are in very, very favorable locations like in the Atacama desert; i.e. in locations with ideal conditions and so forth, which are not replicable in a normal industrialized country.”
Future energy plans, wherever they are, must focus on low-carbon sources to reduce their carbon footprints and so keep climate change within manageable limits. Experts in the nuclear industry argue nuclear power needs to feature more prominently in such plans.
“The first challenge in energy transition [involves] the need to take all necessary options in favor of greenification and electrification of all end applications into account to decrease dependency on fossil fuels,” Shunichi Miyanaga, president and CEO of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, stressed at the expo. “For most end sectors and end applications, low-carbon technical solutions already exist or are in development. For example, new nuclear plants are in development such as Generation 3+ and Generation 4 reactors, electric mobility applications, hydrogen electrified applications and so on.
“It is quicker to favor the development of these electrified and low-carbon technologies,” Miyanaga explained. “The second challenge is to fully leverage nuclear and renewables as the two pillars of a low carbon electricity mix. In this respect, to support the progressive electrification of [an] economy, nuclear appears to be the necessary second leg of energy transition, sharing key advantages with renewables. This is the contribution to zero-carbon energy independency.”