Nuclear plant in place of oil shale?

Nuclear power plant.

PHOTO: Bernd Feil / M.i.S. / imago / Scanpix

Earlier in the week, Minister of Finance Martin Helme (EKRE) said that perhaps Estonia should consider constructing a nuclear power plant to ensure availability of energy. Experts tend to agree – there seem to be few long-term alternatives.

The Fukushima disaster, that killed the last nuclear plant debate in Estonia, took place in a third-generation nuclear power plant where power is generated under immense pressure.

If the reactor’s cooling water overheats, the steel hull cannot withstand the pressure and the steam used to generate electricity shoots out and poisons all living things with radiation.

“A molten salt reactor does not operate under high pressure,” said Andi Hektor, senior research fellow at the Chemical Biology and Physics Institute.

We are talking about a fourth-generator nuclear reactor that while unlicensed at this point is being developed. Because molten salt can be heated to over 1,000 degrees without it boiling, such a reactor would not explode even if it overheats. When the molten salt or saline solution expands as it heats, the excess flows into circulation pipes and the fuel becomes thinner as a result of which the nuclear reaction slows, and temperature will fall.

“Should anything else happen to the nuclear plant – for example, if someone decided to bomb it and break the reactor – the molten salt would flow into a concrete sink and gradually become solid as it is exposed to outside temperature,” Hektor explained.

Moreover, radioactive substances – such as radioactive iodine that is the most dangerous to humans – exist in molten salt in the form of ions and would remain fixed in the salt.

Fourth-generation reactors also have fast neutrons, meaning that the waste they produce is not as radioactive. Hektor said that if radioactive waste from an older reactor needs to be kept underground for tens of thousands of years, waste from the new reactor would be rendered safe in just 500 years.

Molten salt reactors also have price on their side – they are smaller and therefore considerably cheaper to construct than older-type plants. They are also less powerful at 200-300 megawatts.

If a fourth-generation nuclear power plant is this good, why hasn’t one been constructed yet? Two functional test reactors were built, but because their byproduct is not plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons, developers decided to stick with third-generation plants.

“It was decided in USA in the 1970s to stick with nuclear plants than can produce plutonium,” Hektor said.

Arguments against a molten salt reactor begin with the fact that the technology is unlicensed, while there are several companies working on it in North America. A fourth-generation molten salt nuclear plant has been procured in Canada and should be completed by the end of the next decade.

Asked whether Estonia could have such a nuclear plant, Hektor said that as a scientist, he does not perceive any other option.

“Yes, the other option would be to rely on Russian gas that allows energy production of sufficiently low carbon emissions. If we are to follow EU climate policy, a nuclear plant seems our only option,” he said.

A project for a modern nuclear reactor is pursued by a company called Fermi Energia in Estonia. The venture is owned by Reform Party member Kalev Kallemets, former Eesti Energia CEO Sandor Liive and Henri Ormus, one of three students Eesti Energia sent to Sweden to study nuclear energy in 2007.

“Our idea is to prepare for the possibility of constructing a modern small nuclear reactor in Estonia somewhere in the 2030s,” Liive said. He added that the company has involved over quarter of a million euros in its first financing round and settled on a technology.

“We have met with three developers. Two develop molten salt reactors – Terrestrial Energy and Moltex Energy that is in the process of licensing its technology in Canada – and General Electric Hitachi that plans to develop a smaller, 300 megawatt third-generation plant,” Liive said.

Liive said it is important for Estonia for the plant not to be too powerful. “Firstly, because the investment target is one billion euros. Secondly, Estonia will join the continental Europe frequency band in 2025 that is sure to limit the country’s unit capacity. Thirdly, we have already attempted to construct a major nuclear power plant, and it didn’t work out,” Liive said.

Concrete activities are at least a decade away. “We do not want to be the guinea pigs of new technology. We will keep an eye on how developers are doing, but it is too soon to say which of the three will succeed. They need a license in Canada or USA, they need to construct a plant and it will have to work for some time. They must also offer us a fixed-price contract and ensure competitive price of energy,” Liive said.

Provided the new technology is issued a license and the first fourth-generation plant will become operational in Canada in 2030, Estonia could get a nuclear power plant in 2035 at the earliest. Both Hektor and Liive said that construction would not take long: between two and three years.

How much would electricity have to cost for the nuclear plant to make financial sense? Liive said that developers have come up with the figure of 32-46 euros per megawatt-hour. “Unfortunately, these are just theoretical figures, and it is too early to speculate. That said, developers understand they cannot afford a product that is unable to compete. No one would buy that product,” Liive said.

Who would pay for the billion-euro plant? In Finland, the construction of nuclear power plants is financed by companies that require a lot of power. Liive would prefer it if the private sector would pick up the tab also in Estonia. Listing a holding in the plant could also be considered.