By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, December 25: The Sri Lanka Atomic Energy Authority (SLAEA) chairman, Prof. S.R.D. Rosa told Daily Mirror on December 12, that his office had given the nod to the incorporation of nuclear power in the country’s energy mix. This is in line with President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s exhortation last year that Sri Lankans should “seriously think about nuclear power” to overcome the power shortage.
According to Prof.Rosa, the search is on for a foreign development partner. He has said that proposals have been received from Russia, US, Denmark and China to set up a Small Modular Reactors (SMR) that would cost about US$ 2 billion. Delegations from Russia and China have already met the SLAEA. But Russia appears to be the preferred partner and rightly so.
Russia dominates the European market for nuclear energy, even amid its war against Ukraine and US and European sanctions against it.
The safety of nuclear power generation and its economic advantages have been discussed threadbare in a 2018 work by Mahesh N. Jayakody and Jeysingam Jeyasugiththan of Colombo University and Prasad Mahakumara of the government of Sri Lanka. Their study noted that while the installation cost of nuclear plants would be high and disposing of nuclear waste would be challenging, nuclear plants are marked by low maintenance costs and a minimum adverse environmental impact.
In the long run, nuclear energy would work out to be cheaper, the authors said, while recommending the Russian VVER-1000 and the American AP-1000 models based on Pressurised Water Technology (PWR).
A US Office of Nuclear Energy report of 2021 said that nuclear plants have the highest ‘capacity factor’ (maximum capacity) compared to any other energy source. “Nuclear plants are producing maximum power more than 92% of the time during the year. That’s about nearly two times more than natural gas and coal units, and are almost three times or more reliable than wind and solar plants.”
According to the US Office of Nuclear Energy, nuclear power plants require less maintenance and are designed to operate for longer stretches before refuelling (typically every 1.5 or 2 years).
As regards the raw materials the US office said: “Uranium and thorium are both more abundant than tin; and with the new generation of fast-breeder and thorium reactors, we would have abundant nuclear energy for millions of years. Yet, even if the resources lasted a mere 1,000 years, we would have ample time to develop exotic new future energy sources.”
On safety, which is a major concern in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan researchers cited above maintain that the evolution of nuclear power plant technologies has made reactors very safe and protected from human error.
According to Physics World nuclear power is “hundreds of times” safer than coal, gas, and oil. On the danger from nuclear waste, the website www.world-nuclear.org says: “The amount of waste generated by nuclear power is very small relative to other thermal electricity generation technologies; nuclear waste is neither particularly hazardous nor hard to manage relative to other toxic industrial waste.”
Why Russia is the best option
Kristyna Foltynova of Radio Free Europe says that European nations are unable to stop the import of Russian nuclear material even in the midst of the war in Ukraine because Russia dominates the world market in nuclear material.
Russia is among the five countries with the world’s largest uranium resources. But uranium mining is just one step in the nuclear process. Raw uranium needs to be refined into uranium concentrate, converted into gas, and then enriched. And this is where Russia excels, Foltynova says.
“In 2020, there were just four conversion plants operating commercially — in Canada, China, France, and Russia. Russia was the largest player, with almost 40% of the total uranium conversion infrastructure in the world, and therefore produced the largest share of uranium in gaseous form (called uranium hexafluoride).”
“The same goes for uranium enrichment, the next step in the nuclear cycle. According to 2018 data, Russia once again was responsible for the largest share — about 46%”, the Radio Free Europe researcher said.
According to the latest available data, the European Union purchased about 20% of its natural uranium and 26 % of its enrichment services from Russia in 2020. The US imported about 14% of its uranium and 28% of all enrichment services from Russia in 2021,” Foltynova stated.
Nuclear reactors made in Russia are known as VVER. According to Foltynova, there are 11 countries where various types of VVERs are operating currently.
Nuclear Plant Development
Russia is considered the world leader in the export of nuclear plants. According to Foltynova, between 2012 and 2021, the Russian nuclear company, Rosatom, initiated the construction of 19 nuclear reactors; 15 of these were abroad. That is far more than the next most prolific providers: China, France, and South Korea.
Currently, there are 11 countries where various types of VVERs are operating, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Finland. On top of that, other countries such as Egypt, Turkey, and Argentina currently have these reactors under construction or plan to build them.
To keep the reactors operating, plants need a regular supply of nuclear fuel and this is where there is an acute dependence on Russia. “Although there are several suppliers on the market, the Russian TVEL Fuel Company is currently the only authorized supplier of fuel needed for VVER-440s,” Foltynova points out.
Russia is also able to supply High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium ( HALEU), which is a type of fuel that will be needed for more advanced reactors that are now under development by many companies in the US.
According to the American Office of Nuclear Energy, HALEU availability in the US is limited. At the moment, the only supplier able to provide the fuel on a commercial scale is Russia’s Tenex (owned by Rosatom), Foltynova says.
Russia is expanding Its Market
Selling nuclear technology is also part of Russia’s foreign policy, especially now, when Western countries are trying to isolate it by boycotts and sanctions. And Russia is succeeding in this venture.
“One of the reasons countries want to cooperate with Russia (defying sanctions) is that it offers a “package solution”. Russia will not only build a nuclear plant and supply fuel, but it also trains local specialists, helps with safety questions, runs scholarship programs, and disposes of radioactive waste,” Foltynova points out.
Sri Lanka has been offered such assistance according to Prof Rosa.
Russia also offers attractive loans, which are backed by government subsidies and cover at least 80% of construction costs. “Russia has already lent US$ 10 billion to Hungary, US$ 11 billion to Bangladesh and US$ 25 billion to Egypt to build nuclear power plants,” Foltynova adds.
Russia is operating nuclear reactors in 11 countries, and more are under construction or being planned. Besides that, Russia has also signed either MOUs with at least 30 countries, mostly in Africa.
According to Bloomberg, Russia’s nuclear fuel and technology sales abroad rose more than 20% in 2022, according to data compiled by the UK’s Royal United Services Institute. Purchases by EU countries rose to the highest point in three years.
The figures show Nato members including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia continued to purchase Rosatom fuel last year, amid Ukrainian pleas to shut down the trade after Russia hijacked Europe’s biggest power plant, Bloomberg said.
Importantly, Rosatom provides about one-fifth of the enriched uranium needed for the 92 reactors in the US. In Europe, utilities that generate power for 100 million people rely on the company.
Bloomberg further said that atomic commerce creates relationships that last.
“It involves large upfront costs – with Russia usually providing the credit – and long-term agreements to service plants, train their operators and replenish fuel. That kind of financial and technical collaboration can strengthen diplomatic ties too.”