Energy 28 February, 2018 11:00 am   
COMMENTS: Mateusz Gibała

HTR technology will be profitable for Poland

Director of Nuclear Energy Department Józef Sobolewski, PhD. tells about prospects of development of the HTR technology in Poland. Will the HTR program be a supplementation of the nuclear power plant program?

Józef Sobolewski: It depends on how we look at it. Construction of a nuclear power plant and implementation of high-temperature reactors HTR are two independent programs at different levels of development that will be carried out parallelly, without any influence on each other. A nuclear power plant involves big Generation III/III+ reactors to generate electric energy, whereas HTR reactors are small reactors of the latest Generation IV (several dozen smaller than classical energy ones).

Why does Poland need HTR reactors?

Chemical and petrochemical industries need process steam of a very high temperature. Nowadays it is sourced by burning coal, gas and other hydrocarbons. In the future emission-free HTR reactors may be a source of industrial heat. Due to this we can reduce our dependence on import of gas and, which is maybe even more important, reduce emissivity of the Polish economy. HTR reactors may be also an excellent export commodity.

In that case, what shall we do with gas we want to bring through the Northern Gate?

The basic elements of energy security mean a diversification of supplies, and so we shall bring gas in amounts and on conditions that are suitable for us. Nowadays natural gas is used in chemical industry both as chemical raw material and a source of heat. We bring it mainly from the East. Implementation of high-temperature reactors HTR gives us an opportunity to replace gas as a source of heat for many tens of years. It will be a source independent from the volatile prices of gas on the global market and accessible for many decades.

For a man less familiar with technology, are high-temperature reactors HTR simply nuclear thermal-electric power stations?

It is not what it seems. Using this type reactors for classical heating will not be justified economically in comparison with light-water reactors. One can say that HTR reactors are small thermal-electric power stations for the industry, a source of process heat to be used e.g. in chemical industry and other industries that use heat of temperatures above 500 degrees Centigrade. In a classical light-water power reactor the cooling agent, i.e. water, is a limitation in reaching temperatures of above 300 degrees Centigrade. In many industrial processes in chemical and petrochemical industries we need much higher temperatures, at the level of 550 degrees. Use of water in a reactor and its maintenance in the state of overheating is practically impossible at such temperature due to the pressure. Therefore a HTR reactor is not cooled down with water but with gas, e.g. helium. It allows to obtain temperature of 700 degrees Centigrade at the reactor output. There are also projects using other cooling agents, e.g. liquid metals like sodium or lead.

How can this technology be implemented in Poland?

Technology of high-temperature reactors has been known for 40 years, yet not in purely commercial applications. Next year China will launch its first commercial HTR, but only for generation of electric power. In Poland we already have a suitable infrastructure for development of such technology at the National Centre for Nuclear Research NCBJ in Swierk, where a research reactor Maria is operational and the same Center may enhance its research and commercial activities and offer results worldwide.

Will it pay off? Will it be more cheaply?

The simulations performed show that it will. It will depend mainly on payments for CO2 emissions in the European Union and the price of the raw material itself. If the prices of CO2 are higher, it will soon turn out that commercial heat received from HTR reactors will be very cheap in comparison to the increasing fees for use of combustion fuels.

Where do we locate industrial nuclear heat in Poland heated with coal?

Our goal is non-competition but rather cooperation with the coal. Everything will be decided by economy and external conditions, especially in the long run. It is important to ensure energetic independence for our country mainly in the long run. Please remember that uranium is an element that commonly occurs in nature, and our first commercial reactor HTR will be in operation after 2030. This technology still requires research and implementation works, but not only that. For example in the Polish law we have a provision that nuclear reactors must be the water type. Therefore changes of law will be required at many levels. Unfortunately all this takes time.

When will the first special purpose company announced by the Ministry of Energy be created for the HTR program?

At the beginning we are not talking about a commercial company, but this entity is almost the fact. Formally it will be founded within a few weeks. There are parties interested to participate in this project, also foreign partners from overseas and Far East. We do not fear the foreign capital. However, we have to remember that the biggest intellectual value will be that of the very project of such a reactor and we shall do our best to have it in Polish hand to the greatest extent. The implementation of the HTR reactor is a very good example of investments in modern technologies, in development of Polish technical thought and economy based on knowledge, included in the Morawiecki’s plan. In the first stage we want to build a test reactor in Swierk, where we have all the necessary infrastructure. The first commercial reactor may be ready ca. 2031. At the end I would like to add that implementation of the HTR reactor has a long term value also from one more reason. In the future we would like to obtain the temperature of 1000 degrees Centigrade in the reactor. Such a reactor could be used to produce the fuel of the future, i.e. hydrogen.

Credits: Wojciech Jakóbik