Nuclear power renaissance: the Russian experience

October 24, 2015 08:06
Unlike other countries, Russia has never ceased developing its nuclear power industry. Photo: Manezh Exhibition Hall

Nuclear was once seen as “technology of the past”, but currently there are 68 reactors under construction and as many as 322 nuclear reactors have been proposed for construction in the future.

To date, there are 438 nuclear reactors operating in 48 countries, accounting for approximately 11 percent of the total electricity production globally.

While the Fukushima disaster and other nuclear accidents may have provoked anti-nuclear sentiment, the question is whether the world is ready to move away from nuclear energy.

“Unlike other countries, Russia has never ceased developing its nuclear power industry. We continue to build nuclear power plants,” said Sergey Demin, head of Rosatom’s regional office in Beijing.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the nuclear industry in Russia, which is the world's third-largest generator of nuclear power. The country never had a “nuclear pause” even after the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986.

Russia’s current federal target program envisions a 25 to 30 percent nuclear power share of total generation by 2030.

Although some European countries such as Sweden, Germany and Switzerland have announced plans to close all their nuclear plants in the next 15 years, the Russian nuclear company believes that nuclear power remains a big business.

According to Demin, Rosatom has doubled its international orders portfolio in the post-Fukushima period since 2011. At of the end of 2014, it has already surpassed the US$100 billion mark over a period of 10 years.

Currently, its international orders portfolio covers contracts for the construction of 30 power units in more than 10 countries including China.

“The global demand for nuclear power is growing,” Demin said.

As a separate engineering division of Rosatom, JSC Atomstroyexport (JSC ASE) is working with Jiangsu Nuclear Power Corp. (JNPC), China Nuclear Power Engineering Corp. (CNPE) and China Nuclear Energy Industry Corp. (CNEIC) on the construction of reactor units No. 3 and No. 4 for the Tianwan Nuclear Power Plant in China.

The project is being touted as "the largest joint nuclear energy project between Russia and China" and scheduled to be in operation in 2018.

According to Sergey Kondratyev, head of the economic department at the Institute for Energy and Finance, low electricity generation cost is what makes nuclear energy compelling.

He cited statistics of OECD showing that electricity generation costs for a nuclear power plant is 1.5 times less than a coal power plant and twice lower than wind energy.

As he put it: "The strong side of nuclear power is predictable and relatively low electricity prices. If you give up nuclear energy development, you need to figure out how to replace it."

But he highlighted one important condition - affordable financing to build a nuclear power plant.

He compared Russian nuclear power plants to offerings from AREVA and Westinghouse solutions and pointed out that the former is 1.5 or two times cheaper (per MW of installed capacity) than the latter.

However, energy consultant Mycle Schneider thinks the nuclear industry is now facing severe competition.

“The production costs for nuclear energy have increased over the past few years. It's a dramatic development as the costs of all the other technologies, especially renewable energies, are decreasing,” Schneider told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

“Renewable energies are, therefore, now real competitors,” he added.

Even France, a major market player in building nuclear plants, has announced plans to reduce nuclear's share in the energy mix from 80 percent to 50 percent in the next 10 years.

Kondratyev of the Institute for Energy and Finance acknowledged that the industry is facing new realities as new technologies evolve.

Electricity storage, for instance, has made renewable energy such as solar and wind more stable and affordable.

“With the development of electricity storage technologies, consumers and producers will get more flexibility,” he said.

He explained: “Although intra-daily power consumption variation increases, intra-day power price becomes more stable, thanks to the rise of RES generation. Peak output in solar and wind RES that coincides with the peak of daily consumption helps reduce the cost of electricity in peak hours.”

New technologies also present opportunities to nuclear industry especially in applying nuclear technologies to other sectors, according to Rosatom’s Demin.

“The industry today is increasingly aware of the importance of developing non-power use of nuclear technologies, such as nuclear medicine, water purification and so on,” he said.

In collaboration with the Kurchatovsky Institute, Rosatom founded in Moscow the Center for Development of Nuclear Medicine, in which many medical isotopes are being developed.

Isotope technetium-99m generator, for instance, can help in the diagnosis of many human diseases including cancer.

Will nuclear technologies stay relevant in the future?

Kondratyev thinks the answer is yes.

He believes the “demand for nuclear energy will rise” especially in “developing countries where energy consumption continues to grow”.

But he cautioned that the industry needs to get itself prepared for the future.

As he put it: “I do not think that nuclear power is a thing of the past. But it will take time to find its place in the new world.”

-- Contact us at [email protected]


Russia is the world's third-largest generator of nuclear power. Photo: Manezh Exhibition Hall
There are 438 nuclear reactors operating in 48 countries, accounting for 11 percent of the world's total electricity production. Photo: Manezh Exhibition Hall

an independent contributor and consultant