Nuclear and Green Energy are Complementary

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PhDr. Tomáš Vlček, Ph.D., energy expert and Assistant Prof. from the Masaryk University in Czech Republic, will be visiting and teaching at Vytautas Magnus University as part of the Erasmus+ exchange program. In an exclusive interview with VMU, Dr. Vlček shared his thoughts on nuclear energy.

How would you project the future of nuclear power in the world? We can observe that nations like China, India, the US, Vietnam or Turkey are constructing or planning to construct new nuclear power plants. While some EU countries are also investing in nuclear power plants, but the projects are lagging and some member states plan to reject nuclear power.

 This is exactly what is happening. The current political and economic environment in the traditional “nuclear” regions makes it extremely difficult to construct nuclear power plants. This is caused by a number of causes including environmental awareness, public opposition, market development, falling price of electricity, support of renewables, the Fukushima incident etc. On the other hand, the quickly developing economies strive for energy to cover their growing needs and nuclear energy is very attractive for them. Their need for nuclear energy and the consequent efforts to get it is usually understood through purely economic or security of supply views. From an analytical perspective, it could be understood also as a clash between market (liberal) approach and strategic (realist) approach to energy security. Anyway the fact is the nuclear technology use and know-how is slowly moving from traditional “Western” part of the world to the so called developing economies or the third world countries and this is where the nuclear energy future is bright.

Is nuclear power economically viable and will it be in the future? Will it be able to compete with wind power or other types of green energy?

It is difficult to give you a clear answer to this question. There are major differences depending on the region. It is definitely economically viable in regions where a huge amount of energy is needed, such as China, India and other places in the world. The popular perspective is nuclear energy competes with green energy, which is however not completely true. At the moment these types of energy production have a different position in the energy mix and it should be viewed as complementary. Nuclear energy is also an interesting option in dealing with decrease of emissions as it is a reliable, stable, low-carbon source and does not produce CO2. It is rather the changes on the market, especially the support for renewables and the support for development of renewable technologies and systems, that slowly makes nuclear energy uneconomical, than the technology itself.

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Do small countries have capabilities to construct NPPs, for example Lithuania?

Few, if any, countries and/or companies in the world are able to build and finance an entire nuclear power plant on their own. These countries must cooperate and enter joint platforms either with other countries or with companies. And this is also the reason why the industry has many sales techniques and options to deal with financing issues, including vendor investments, strategic partners, providing financial loans through national and/or private banks, turnkey option, or the exquisite Russian technique called “build-own-operate” (BOO). In this model, the contractor builds the plant and operates it, while serving also as the principal owner of the facility.

The Astravyets NPP is being constructed just 50 kilometers from Lithuanian capital Vilnius. President Alexander Lukashenka announced that it will be the cheapest NPP in the world, and we already know about some serious accidents in the construction of the power plant. Can it be safe?

Lukashenka’s statement is very bold and will hardly be accurate. Unfortunately a natural part of NPP constructions are delays that cause budget overruns. And all vendors have these issues (remember AREVA’s Olkiluoto-3 or Westinghouse’s Vogtle) including Rosatom. For example it’s VVER-1200/392M design at the Russian Novovoronezh II site has been postponed several times from the original in-operation date (2012 for unit I and 2013 for unit II) to 2016 for unit I and 2018 for unit II. I would be surprised if the Astravyets NPP would be an exception, I expect the construction to be delayed and over the planned budget, too. The recent fall of the reactor vessel will surely have its impact on delay and cost overrun. On the other hand accidents happen and the fact accidents happened at the Astravyets construction site does not have any informative value about the actual safety of the technology.

Is there any leverage for Lithuania to stop the construction?

I do not think so. Lithuania will probably still continue to develop the alleged Belarus Espoo Convention non-compliance issue but also face the potential “political” use of this from the Belarusian side in the future as the planned Visaginas NPP is just 10 km from the Belarusian border. The Baltic countries were eventually able to oust the Russian Neman NPP project by pledging not to buy the electricity. However the primary reason the Astravyets NPP is constructed is not the competition in the Baltic area and Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian and Polish pledge not to buy electricity from Astravyets will not affect the construction process. The electricity from Astravyets NPP is needed in Belarus.

The Astravyets NPP is being constructed by Russian state company Rosatom. How safe are Rosatom’s NPPs?

All the NPP designs offered at world market do comply with the strict general safety standards of IAEA. And it is not only the question of requirements but also the question of business. The vendors do care very much about the quality and safety of their products because the nuclear market is small in numbers (but huge in money) and very competitive. Any considerable safety issues would seriously harm the image of the technology and thus the business of the vendor. This was for example the case of the RBMK reactors after the Chernobyl disaster. Speaking about Rosatom, the VVER-1200/V-491 models under construction in Astravyets are evolutionary models building on the design and operational history of previous models VVER-440 and VVER-1000. Even though the VVER-1200 units are not yet operational anywhere in the world, it means the vendor has many reactor-years of experience with the technology.

Can Belarus increase its energy independence on Russia with its NPP?

Yes, more than 95% of electricity in Belarus is produced from natural gas imported from Russia. In fact, the full dependence on Russian Federation in natural gas and therefore also electricity production, and also in crude oil, together with the fact that Belarus’ domestic electricity production does not cover the demand and that Belarus imports electricity, are the main reasons for the construction of the Astravyets NPP. On the other hand, the supplier of nuclear fuel for the Astravyets NPP will be Rosatom’s TVEL and there is no other manufacturer of this fuel in the world. Westinghouse has its own fuel design for VVER-1000 reactors and it is likely it will develop its own design for the emerging market of VVER-1200 reactors, but this is unlikely to happen any time soon.

In your opinion, does Rosatom operate like a company interested in profit, or is it more a diplomatic instrument of the Kremlin, pushing Russia’s political interests?

My understanding is, and this is also one of the outcomes of Masaryk University Center for Energy Studies’ report about Rosatom’s operations in Central and Eastern Europe, that Rosatom is operating mainly with economic profit in its mind. Its business strategy is however very long-term and studied. Its key aspect is the exploit of path dependence. The existence of a nuclear power plant of a kind in a country is a strong factor for decisions about constructions of a new NPP of the same kind. Historical experience of the operating country with the construction, commissioning and operation of reactors as well as creation of downstream industries, education and training systems factor heavily in later tender decisions. These ties to selected technology and infrastructure are a strong prerequisite for future decisions in public tenders. This is the reason why you see Rosatom operating in a number of countries around the world signing a number of memoranda and cooperation treaties. The fact Rosatom operates in the whole nuclear fuel cycle gives it a unique position as it can offer individually tailored cooperation deals (research and education, ionizing radiation in health care, civilian industrial use of radioactive material, exploration and production of uranium, nuclear fuel production and supply, cooperation in the back end and reprocessing etc.). Of course only a handful of these efforts will eventually get to a construction of a nuclear power plant, but it is a way to get to new markets and strengthen its position over competitors. The eventual construction of an NPP in a country is then a strong prerequisite when this country will decide about more reactors in the future, even several decades from now. Rosatom is in this way creating markets for its future operations.

Do Rosatom projects in Central and Eastern Europe increase dependency of those states on Russia? Do NPP projects allow for Russia to exert bigger influence on states where Rosatom implements projects?

We should not speak about dependence, but rather Rosatom exploiting path-dependence, creating opportunities and opening doors for the decades-long future, as I said in the previous answer.

Speaking about nuclear power plant construction, given the limited amount of contracts in the nuclear sector and the revenue implications of each one, any attempt to use a nuclear contract as leverage on a particular country would cause substantial damage to any contractor’s reputation. This fact diminishes the possibility of a nuclear contractor exerting political pressure over a sovereign client, as contractors with damaged reputations would find themselves in a difficult situation regarding future business prospects worldwide. Rosatom, like other nuclear vendors, calculates that it cannot afford to be found guilty of abusing a particular project to advance its political/strategic goals, as it would essentially harm not only its long term future but also its immediate market capitalization.

The situation is different when it comes to nuclear fuel for these reactors where Rosatom’s TVEL is the dominant supplier. In fact, OAO TVEL is the supplier for all VVER design reactors worldwide, with the exception of three units at the South Ukraine NPP. There is no alternative supplier for the VVER-440 market segment and there is only one alternative supplier for the VVER-1000 market segment, which is Westinghouse with its VVANTAGE-6 fuel type currently in operation in the South Ukraine NPP.

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  • PhDr. Tomáš Vlček, Ph.D.
  •  Assistant Professor
  • Energy Security Studies
  • Faculty of Social Studies
  • Masaryk University

Dr. Tomáš Vlček works at the Energy Security Studies Program at the Department of International Relations and European Studies; and he also works at the International Institute of Political Science of Masaryk University. He is a member of the independent research platform Center for Energy Studies and the academic association Czech Nuclear Education Network. He is a graduate of the prestigious professional International Visitors Leadership Program of the United States Department of State. During his previous years he has taken part in more than 20 government as well as academic research projects. His scholarly interests include nuclear energy, energy security of the Czech Republic and the region of Central and Eastern Europe. He is also the initiator and manager of the prestigious international Summer School on Energy Security held every early August in Telč since 2012.

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