Before Implementing Small Modular Reactors, Make Sure They Are Safe — Grygoriy Plachkov

The head of the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate Grygoriy Plachkov informed Ukrainska Energetyka (Ukrainian Energy) publication about the prospects for licensing the new reactor technology in Ukraine, which could replace Russian VVER power units in the future.

Among the advantages of small modular reactors are a highly flexible operational mode, the ability to operate in order to heat the cities, as well as improved safety characteristics. The first license for the use of this technology can be probably obtained in 2020. However, the Ukrainian nuclear regulator is gaining experience for licensing small modular reactors in Ukraine. 

– What is the main advantage of small modular reactors and why is this technology considered promising?

These are flexible power units: they are quickly loaded and unloaded. For example, Americans are constructing small modular reactors to allow flexibility in the use of renewable sources. The sun and the wind are here today and gone tomorrow.

As a regulatory body, we do not choose technology. We must understand what we can do in our laws and regulations to license it. Today, in accordance with the law, it is impossible to license this technology, but we monitor these trends in the world.

As the regulatory body, we do not choose a technology. We should understand what we can do in our legislation and regulations to license it. In accordance with the law, this technology cannot be licensed today, but we monitor these trends in the world.

As soon as one of our fellow regulators issues a license for such technology, we will definitely make a request under bilateral agreements on the exchange of technical information. Based on what did the regulator issue such a decision? What national legislation did they use? What IAEA standards have they followed?

When the regulator issues a decision, it is fully confident that there will be no errors and recurrence of previous precedents. We are waiting for the first plant to be constructed, commissioned, and all its modes to be worked out.

– Who can be the first to obtain the license?

USA. According to my information, the first license will be obtained in early 2020.

They have several technologies that are currently subjected to the licensing process. We are very closely following this process, trends and innovations. Let us wait and see their progression.

– Holtec?

I do not think so, this will be not Holtec … but if our American colleagues will work out everything well, we will analyze what has to be changed in the legislation and we will obtain a promising technology.

– Whom does SNRIU work with in licensing?

We have signed an agreement with the U.S. National Regulatory Commission, which is currently conducting the licensing process for SMRs. Several projects are under consideration: some of them are at the final stage, some of them at the stage of review. The Canadian regulator is also working on licensing.

– What is happening at the national level?

There is an international consortium under the Partnership Agreement between the Energoatom, SSTC NRS and Holtec International American Company. The technical support organization of the SNRIU joined the consortium in order to understand how we can license the new technology. Until now, the SNRIU had no experience in licensing Western nuclear facilities, and thanks to the participation of the SSTC NRS in the consortium the regulator will be able to prepare in advance for the challenges in licensing new technologies.

– Is there any understanding of how Ukraine can cope with the implementation of SMRs?

As the country that has survived Chornobyl, we cannot use technologies that have not been experienced anywhere else before, we cannot become a testing ground. Before making any decision, one should make sure that it is safe.

However, we have all the things needed: engineering mindset, professionals who will implement this. We have one of the best scientific centers for nuclear and radiation safety in Europe, one of the largest uranium deposits in Europe. We cannot only enrich uranium, as we have signed an agreement on the non-proliferation of nuclear technologies.

– However, conversations are already underway; the Energoatom highly recommends this technology…

I believe that this is promising for our country. We will need to replace capacities that are being decommissioned – we will not be able to extend them forever.

However, small modular reactors are a new technology, not licensed in one country yet. I remember already 15 projects according to the IAEA information. They are different in layout, in capacity and in various technical characteristics. For example, one of the projects envisages not only electric energy generation, but also heating of the cities.

We inherited the VVER technology – 15 power units from the Soviet era. In addition, this is the only technology that we can license today. Our Energy Strategy by 2035 has a clause – “the choice of a new reactor technology”. It is clear that we cannot build anything with the aggressor country.

– Do Russians have such new technologies?

They are confidential.

– And if the strategy is rewritten, as promised by the Ministry of Energy and Environmental Protection?

I do not think that it will be radically rewritten. Ukraine will not be able to live without nuclear energy for a very long time.

– What issues regarding SMRs remain unresolved for our regulator?

SMR is the same pressurized water reactor. It is simply smaller. The core is completely under water. In addition, water is both the best moderator and coolant. This point is worrying: how to withdraw fuel and ensure refueling? There are enough other points to be considered. For example, cooling – where to get water?

The next question is personnel who should provide services. What will be the layout: will it be one small unit or 12 pieces together? A worrying moment is related to the frequency of fuel loading. There are projects not requiring fuel to be changed for two years. Is it safe or not? In addition, I do not understand the emergency mode, beyond design-basis accidents. There are so many more questions in the use of small modular reactors than answers.

Nevertheless, I saw a unique plant design. I cannot disclose it yet, but what I saw looked almost fantastic. Everything was too good: parameters, indicators, safety, operating personnel, and management of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel.

In general, for me, as an engineer, this technology looks more secure because it uses more passive safety technologies. In addition, a fairly reasonable price for the new construction of one kilowatt of installed capacity.

– How will the issue of siting new plants in Ukraine be resolved?

When the question arises, where to site them, a separate law of Ukraine will be needed. Any siting of a nuclear installation requires a separate law. This process is very long, non-linear and complex. The decision will be made based on existing infrastructure. In my opinion, their installation is advisable where operating units will be decommissioned, or in places where flexible capacities are needed.

– Will the structure of generation in Ukraine change or remain the way it is now – with a focus on nuclear energy?

Our country needs to understand what we want: developing nuclear or renewable energy. Moreover, there must be a wise balance in everything. The whole world is moving towards decarbonization. For example, the IAEA says that nuclear energy will help to reduce releases, because nuclear energy is low-carbon. Nuclear energy should not be nightmarized, but it must be allowed to develop in a normal way.

Author: Ruslana Chechulina.

According to Ukrainian Energy publication.