Americans would construct a nuclear plant in Estonia

Vice president of nuclear projects for U.S. energy giant GE Hitachi Jon Ball.

PHOTO: Erik Tikan

Vice president of nuclear projects for U.S. energy giant GE Hitachi Jon Ball says that the company could construct a small modular reactor in Estonia that would cost a little under one billion euros and could compete with natural gas and renewable energy in terms of cost-effectiveness.

GE Hitachi and Estonian Fermi Energia are looking into the possibility of constructing such a reactor in Estonia, with Ball claiming that it is safe enough to have in one’s back yard.

Have you seen the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl?”

Unfortunately, I have not managed to see it.

For many Estonians, a nuclear power plant is associated with the Chernobyl disaster. How to convince people nuclear power is safe?

Based on what we know of the Chernobyl disaster and U.S. boiling water reactor technology, I can assure you that something like that cannot happen in our BWRX-300 reactor.

What is the worst that could happen to this kind of reactor?

Our engineers have made superhuman efforts to prevent and avoid all manner of worst-case scenarios. For example, a loss-of-coolant accident would be a terrible disaster in a light-water reactor. Heat from radioactive decay of nuclear fuel would cause the reactor core to melt. This could not happen in the reactor in question.

Another potential threat is posed by physical attacks. GE Hitachi’s small modular reactor would be constructed underground, making it very resilient to external threats.

Therefore, we should not fear external threats or attacks?

Exactly. Considering that the reactor is underground and covered with a massive concrete lid that makes it inaccessible from the outside, it is protected against attacks and aviation accidents for example.

The planned output of the small reactor is 300 megawatts. Why not construct a larger one in Estonia, and what are the advantages of a small reactor?

The main reason is financial, as major reactors could cost $8-10 billion and more. The reactor in question costs roughly $1 billion or less.

The second advantage is that small reactors are very simple and reliable. They can be constructed near settlements – whether we’re talking about cities, data centers or military campuses – that need reliable power supply. This is made possible by their small size and high safety rating.

You would have one in your back yard, figuratively speaking?

Absolutely. The headquarters of GE Hitachi is located in Wilmington, Carolina. One of our boiling water reactors lies just 20 miles from the population and my house.

I would feel 100 percent safe having a BWRX-300 reactor in by back yard.

How competitive is nuclear energy compared to power generation using fossil fuels?

Nuclear power is clean energy, and we believe that it plays an important role in reducing CO2 emissions in Europe and the world, alongside wind and solar energy. We need all three power sources to achieve climate neutrality.

We need nuclear power because it is constantly available. It can ensure baseload power, has a very high level of efficiency – 95 percent and more. At the same time, it meets all green energy requirements.

Is constructing a small modular reactor in the region a goal that could help you expand?

The entire European market is quite promising for us. We commend Fermi Energia and Estonia for thinking about meeting future energy needs and climate targets. We believe nuclear energy will play an important role in diversifying power sources.

But not just in Europe – we also see great interest in Canada, United States, Southeast Asia. A lot of regions all over the world perceive nuclear energy as a way of meeting carbon reduction goals.

When could the first reactor become operational if the search for a possible location, planning and construction could begin immediately?

It is the task of the developer [Fermi Energia] to find and designate potential locations. I cannot say how long that could take in Estonia.

I can tell you we are looking for possibilities in the U.S. and Canada and expect to have the first operational module reactor up and running in 2027.

East Viru County would probably make the most sense as the location for the plant in Estonia. Could people who currently work for fossil fuel power plants find work at the nuclear plant?

There are quite a few transferable skills that are needed in both. Employees would definitely need nuclear engineering skills, while we plan to import this know-how to Estonia in cooperation with Fermi Energia.

How many jobs would such a plant create?

Once up and running, we expect it will need a staff of 75 because it is a small reactor. During construction, it could create hundreds of local jobs, also seasonal jobs tied to servicing the reactor when the plant needs new fuel or maintenance.

Estonia currently has no spent nuclear fuel repository. What should be done?

There are several solutions that have proved effective. In the United States, we use high-tech containers that will eventually be moved to a final repository. The French reuse nuclear fuel. This technology reduces the half life of reused nuclear fuel from 300,000 years to just 300 years. This translates into much less waste that needs to be stored.

Does this mean nuclear fuel is reusable or even a renewable source of power?

I’ve heard it called a nearly renewable energy source, even though that is not a term used officially. A light-water reactor uses very little nuclear fuel that it does not turn into waste as such.

This slightly used nuclear fuel could be reused if regulations permit that would help reduce quantities of nuclear waste to be stored.

Fermi Energia is also considering other technologies, a molten salt reactor for example. Which technology is better?

The main advantage of a molten salt reactor is that it allows for very high temperatures that is useful when producing hydrogen for example. Its disadvantage is that the technology has not been licensed yet.

Components and fuel need more work when it comes to molten salt reactors as they operate in corrosive conditions.

We see the technology having potential in the second half of 2030s or later still. At the same time, the BWRX-300 works based on proven technology and fuel we have been using for decades and worked on making safer and more economical over the years.