The revival of nuclear power engineering

19/05/06

MOSCOW. (Igor Tomberg, for RIA Novosti)

Skyrocketing world energy prices, growing concerns over dwindling
hydrocarbon deposits and tougher global competition for energy resources
have all revived interest in nuclear power. Peaceful use of nuclear power is
again becoming an optimal alternative to fossil fuels. Clearly, global
energy security is impossible without active development of nuclear power in
the next 30-40 years.

In his recent state of the nation address, Russian President Vladimir Putin
advocated the restructuring of the national nuclear industry and its
subsequent development. Putin said, "Russia must also take steps to develop
nuclear power, a nuclear power sector based on safe, new-generation
reactors. We need to consolidate Russia's position on the world markets for
nuclear power sector technology and equipment and make full use of our
knowledge, experience, advanced technology, and international cooperation.
Restructuring the nuclear power industry would enable Russia to achieve
these goals. We must also focus on promising new directions of energy -
hydrogen and thermonuclear power."

This statement, made twenty years after the April 26, 1986 Chernobyl
tragedy, clearly shows that the "Chernobyl syndrome" is becoming history.

The Russian fuel-and-energy sector hinges on the nuclear power industry,
which ensures its well-balanced performance. Nuclear power plants generate
21% of European Russia's electricity, while the breakdown for North-Western
and Central Russia and the Volga region is 42% and 30%, respectively.
Nationwide power demand, which soared by 50% in 1999-2004, was met by NPPs
that annually generated 5% more electricity.

Putin has repeatedly set the objective of ensuring national energy security
and stimulating the nuclear power industry's competitiveness. In January
2006, the President put forward the idea of creating international nuclear
fuel-cycle centers, and said the share of nuclear power in the national
fuel-and-energy balance needed to increase from the current 16% to 25% by
2030. Putin also advocated the development of fast reactors.

Industry professionals said the rated capacity of national NPPs had to
increase by at least 20 gigawatts in order to achieve this ambitious goal by
2030. But virtually all operational nuclear power units will reach the end
of their service life in the next 24 years; consequently, a 40-gigawatt
increment is essential. Russia needs to commission 200% more
power-generating facilities (which means one power unit each year), and
launch simultaneous construction of four power units. This will require up
to $2 billion worth of annual investment.

Sergei Kiriyenko, former presidential envoy to the Volga federal district,
was placed in charge of the Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) earlier
this year. Rosatom's new top executives plan to overhaul the country's
nuclear sector and to implement a crisis-management program as otherwise
Russia may lose its leading position in the global nuclear power industry.

Kiriyenko said the current global nuclear energy revival would continue for
another 30 to 40 years, and innovative technologies could maintain Russia's
domestic and world market competitiveness. "A restructured nuclear sector
program, due to be submitted to the Government in late May, is of crucial
importance," said Kiriyenko.

There are plans to start overhauling completely the St. Petersburg NPP in
late 2007 or early 2008. This $10-billion project would become the first
step in implementing presidential directives on the nuclear industry
development. The new six-unit NPP would match all world-class safety
standards and provide power for the city's industry, including the Izhora
plants.

Fast reactors form the basis for the sectoral development. Russia's
Beloyarsk NPP operates the world's only commercial BN-600 fast reactor. Oleg
Sarayev, former director of the Beloyarsk NPP, said numerous safe nuclear
power units featuring the closed-loop nuclear fuel cycle would appear after
2030, when Russia finishes testing safe fourth-generation commercial fast
reactors. "The creation of a closed-loop nuclear fuel cycle would make it
possible to supply cheap energy, to get rid of hydrocarbon price
fluctuations and to solve radioactive waste problems," said Sarayev.

Experts say this would also enhance sectoral competitiveness, and Rosatom
estimates the nuclear industry's export potential at $3 billion. Russia
mostly exported enriched uranium, nuclear fuel, stable isotopes and
radioactive isotopes in the last few years. The national nuclear industry
offered the entire range of hi-tech services on the global market, including
the construction of NPPs.

Russia is increasingly participating in NPP construction projects abroad,
and has good chances of winning international tenders in China, Iran, India
and Bulgaria. Beijing plans to build several nuclear power units in southern
China, and Iran wants to commission the second power unit at its Bushehr
NPP. India plans to build 40 power units, and one power unit is to be
constructed at Bulgaria's Belene NPP.

The first power unit of China's incomplete Tianwan NPP, which was built with
Russia's assistance and now operates at 30% of its rated capacity, is to go
on stream this fall. The Tianwan NPP includes the most powerful reactors in
China and is the most ambitious Russian-Chinese economic cooperation
project.


Tougher competition on the civilian nuclear market implies that Russia needs
to upgrade its entire nuclear industry, including the nuclear
machine-building industry, because it may otherwise fall behind in the
nuclear technology race. This has become one of the highest priorities for
the Government.

Igor Tomberg, Ph.D. (Econ.), senior researcher, Energy Research Center,
Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of
Sciences.-0-