Climate and geopolitics have changed ambitions in nuclear energy and Bulgaria firmly stands behind units 7 and 8 of the Kozloduy NPP

Our country will need two more nuclear units to achieve the decarbonization goals

Energy / Bulgaria
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Europe's policy in the transition stage from fossil fuels to clean energy and in particular to renewable energy sources with transition fuel natural gas has changed since the war in Ukraine. The problem with Russian gas supplies and, in particular, the Russian side's change in payment became a major argument for abandoning gas as a transition fuel, although not entirely. The rejection of a number of opportunities by the European institutions, with not particularly sustainable arguments, strengthened the policy of reducing the consumption of blue fuel by 15%.

The debate

Against this background, concerns about a greater need to strengthen measures to reduce warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius forced even more active measures in the field of RES. The unsustainable situation created in the energy market as a whole, fueled by a number of geopolitical events and mainly by the war in Ukraine, led to the imposition of the REPower EU plan with the activation of the RES policy. In the end, however, this is not enough to achieve the ambitions set in the program to reduce harmful emissions in the atmosphere and achieve sustainability with low-carbon sources. All this, together with the tense geopolitical situation and despite the resistance forced the return of nuclear energy to the family of clean energy sources.

The debate at the European level is still ongoing and not easy, but in the first quarter of this year the Council of the EU and the European Parliament finally reached a preliminary agreement to classify nuclear power as a strategic technology under the EU Zero Emissions Industry Act. It may be a cliché, but it will really enable companies from the nuclear sector in the EU to facilitate the process of obtaining permits for the construction of new energy units and the conditions for the development of nuclear energy in Europe. The advantage is that this puts nuclear energy and renewable energy sources on the same footing.

The fact is that requests to change the nuclear landscape appeared long before the European institutions took this step. Even before the upheaval in the oil and gas market in Europe, the nuclear market was upended.

The entry of the American company Westinghouse in Europe and the ambition for a new nuclear revolution with small modular reactors are the basis not only of a revision of the nuclear policy of the EU countries. Rearranging a multi-hundred billion dollar market is a strong move. Risk issues are political, financial, but above all they concern security.

The risk for nuclear energy in Europe remains the leading one mainly because of the REPowerEU plan, which envisages the construction of clean energy capacities and mainly solar and nuclear plants, which by 2030 will cover up to 45% of the EU's final consumption. Judging by the data, solar and wind capacities, according to a legal or not particularly readable way of construction, already reach 40 percent. At the same time, along with increased ambitions for green hydrogen production, intentions are set to once again push nuclear power out of the funding focus. The fact that the EIB rejected the commitment means that sentiment towards nuclear power is still fighting for approval at a very high political level. In line with the race, experts warn that no country in the world will be able to cope with the financing of the energy transition within the limits of the outlined years.

The excuse that nuclear energy is expensive is false, given the fact that these are facilities that can operate for up to 60-80 years, which means that after the payback period, their energy becomes extremely affordable.

SMR or fourth generation reactors

Until recently, the race in nuclear power looked like it would turn into a battle to build large nuclear power plants and small modular reactors (SMRs). For now, there are still too many ambiguities around the SMR and, as it seems, the process there will not end before 2028. At least this is the period when at least one European country is expected to have a small modular reactor built. In addition, the possibility of using SMR more in the industrial sector and for remote regions where this type of technology is cheaper to provide access to the population and industry is emerging. It is expected that by 2028, a number of issues related to safety at work at SMR will be resolved. Experts do not hide that the issue of fuel security, some technological problems guaranteeing safety are among the main problems, as well as the lack of a unified regulatory framework are among the main problems. These were among the main topics discussed at the Bulatom conference. "Small modular reactor (SRM) technology will play a role in decarbonisation," noted European Commissioner Jan Panek. In his speech at the forum, he drew attention to the role of units 5 and 6 of the Kozloduy NPP and the future units 7 and 8, but emphasized the need for a "more serious look" at SMR as well.

From this point of view, however, it is worth reminding that from this year the race in nuclear energy is headed in yet another new direction - a change of generation of nuclear technologies. The tone was set by Great Britain and the United States on the one hand, which rely on the development of thermonuclear energy. Experiments in this direction are underway in the other major nuclear countries such as China and Russia, but as it appears, it will take quite a long time before the first commercial project is built.

Against this background, Russia and China, without giving up such an experiment, are launching the fourth generation of nuclear power, which they define as the energy systems of the future.

The two main disadvantages of modern nuclear power are the accumulation of spent nuclear fuel, the small possibilities for reprocessing, especially in Europe, and the limited reserves of uranium. As experts note, the intended fourth generation does not only affect reactor technologies, but also the fuel, so that a closed cycle and radioactive waste return system is ensured. Most recently, the Russian side announced the start-up of the BN-1200 reactor at the Beloyarsk NPP, and however geopolitical the division may be, this first practical experience is important for the entire nuclear industry, because it outlines the movement forward in favor not of downsizing, but of reducing resource provision.

China is also not far behind - the country is ready with projects for several units with fast reactors - CiFR-1200 on MOX fuel, a plant for processing SNF and regenerated fuel. By 2025, the prototype project and the technical-economic justification should be ready, and construction is planned for 2031-2035.

Indonesia is also among the countries with the intention of introducing a fourth generation nuclear energy system with the intention of building a high-temperature nuclear reactor - PeLUlt with a thermal capacity of 40 MW. In addition to electricity, the complex will produce hydrogen. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2027.

Most recently, Sweden became the first European country to say it would develop a fourth-generation nuclear system.

In view of this new trend, however, the Bulgarian experts remind that there is already legal experience in this direction, but there is still no progress in its enforcement. Moreover, they are categorical that our country's choice of technology must be based on one that is working and with sufficiently high experience abroad.

Where are the European countries positioned and Bulgaria's opportunities

The undisputed leading country in the development of nuclear energy in Europe is France. The country not only has a powerful nuclear resource and personnel, but also carefully plans future development steps. At the same time, the achievement of a high degree of energy saving is taken into account. France intends not only to maintain the existing nuclear fleet, but also to build 6 new EPR reactors by 2050. The first of them should be ready for operation by 2035, it said during the Bulatom conference, which conducted in the "Riviera" complex near Varna by the country's ambassador to Bulgaria, Joel Meyer. In his words, the life of the already existing reactors should be extended, but not at the expense of security and reliability. Given the decarbonisation objectives, this program will be combined with the construction of alternative energy sources. France is precisely putting on the table the introduction of SMRs and accelerating their construction on the territory or at least in the vicinity of existing capacities, so as to gradually achieve the replacement of coal capacities.

Ukraine, despite a series of problems as a result of the war, remains among the largest producers of electricity from nuclear power. According to Oleh Napov, the adviser on economic affairs at the country's embassy in Bulgaria, the plans are for the construction of two new nuclear units and small modular reactors, the production of which will reach 20 GW. The intention is that SMRs will be used for the production of thermal energy and hydrogen, so that through them the country can compensate for the loss of the war in the sector so far. The completion of the Khmelnytsky NPP with the technology of the American company "Westinghouse" AP-1000 is among the main intentions of the Ukrainian side.

Slovenia is betting on the construction of the second unit of the "Krushko" NPP and the construction of SMR in the two main coal regions in the country by 2030. This was explained by Natasha Bergel, Ambassador of Slovenia to Bulgaria. Nuclear energy, in her words, must develop in parallel with technologies for renewable energy sources. Slovenia also has great ambitions for the development of its water resources, but the topic remains sensitive, because of concerns about environmental damage.

Romania emerges as one of the countries in Europe with the most ambitious nuclear energy development program. The country is betting on the completion of the Cherna Voda NPP with two new reactors (units 3 and 4), once again turning to Candu technology. Romania has also turned its attention to new technologies and SMR in particular, Ambassador Brandusa Pradescu commented. "In this aspect, we are cooperating with the US and we are in the preparatory stage to build an SMR industry," she said, specifying that they would be located in the locations of the major coal regions. It is about 6 SMR with a capacity of 462 MW and the ambitious term - 2028.

In Romania, according to Ambassador Prudescu, work is also underway on an option to build a plant for the processing of nuclear fuel, so as not to create additional burdens in the sector. The country also has a huge ambition to build a European center for training personnel for nuclear energy.

The Czech Republic's ambitious program envisages the construction of two new units each at Dukovany NPP and Temelin NPP. The goal is for the NPP to provide up to 50% of the necessary consumption in the country, it became clear from the words of Ambassador Jan Udrzal. At the same time, the program will develop in parallel with the construction of RES capacities. As is known, the country recently invited France and Korea to submit binding offers for the construction of new nuclear capacities at the current two NPPs, and from the words of the diplomat it became clear that the assessment of these two tenders will be clear by the middle of this month. It is important to note that binding offers also apply to fuel supply contracts.

Hungary, which is also the most advanced country and is actually already implementing the Paks 2 NPP project, intends to increase the current 45% of energy from NPP to 70%. At the same time, it is also committed to a program for the modernization of the operating nuclear facilities.

Against this background, the Bulgarian ambition to build units 7 and 8 at the Kozloduy NPP site looks much more modest, but no less ambitious. "The construction of units 7 and 8 of the NPP will help us in the next 15 years to reduce CO2 and will give stability to the economy," noted the chairman of Bulatom, Bogomil Manchev. However, this, in his words, will not solve the issue, given the complex problem with emissions in transport.

"The development of the Bulgarian nuclear energy industry is like a tango - two forwards and one backward, and this must be corrected," commented former MEP Tsvetelina Penkova, reminding of the strategic advantages of our country in nuclear energy. "When there are 21 reactors planned for construction in Europe, it is ridiculous not to use what we have, which will be more difficult for others to access," she explained, noting the substantial progress with fuel diversification for the Kozloduy NPP.

Penkova also explained the need to create a special fund at the European level to support nuclear energy, including the production of nuclear components. Of no less importance is to consider the issue of uranium mining, waste disposal, as well as targeted legislation to extend the life of the operating nuclear fleet.

The inclusion of Bulgarian business in the process of building units 7 and 8 of the Kozloduy NPP will contribute to the building not only of industry, but also of expertise, the importance of which at the regional and European level may grow in the future, the participating experts were emphatic at the Bulatom nuclear conference. This expertise will be even more necessary given the need for two more new nuclear units by 2050.

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