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Energy Nuclear 16 April, 2019 9:00 am   
Editorial staff

Sobolewski: What’s next with the Polish project of a high-temperature reactor for the heat and hydrogen production?


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The subject of the high temperature reactor project went to the Polish Parliament forum on the last day of January this year, thanks to the presentation that I had a honour to present at the meeting of the Parliamentary Mining and Energy Team, chaired by the Member of Parliament Mr. Ireneusz Zyska – writes Dr Józef Sobolewski, former director of nuclear energy at the Ministry of Energy.

This presentation is available on the Polish Parliament Websites.

An interesting conclusion from the discussion that was made between the participants of the meeting is the fact that in the face of the implementation of this technology in Poland, no criticism appeared in this discussion, which is usually the case with technologies from the field of nuclear energy. The discussion later moved to the forums of industry portals, which proves that this is an interesting topic not only from a technological point of view but also for economic, social and climate reasons. 

Due to the limited time of the Parliament meeting, not all aspects related to the HTR environment could be shown in the presentation, which is why they will be more strongly emphasized in this article, leaving aside purely technological aspects discussed in the Parliament and described in the report which you can find on the Websites of the Ministry of Energy (Polish and English version): https://www.gov.pl/web/energia/wysokotemperaturowe-reaktory-jadrowe-chlodzone-gazem-htgr).

As the beginning I will remind you, the objective of the interdisciplinary Committee for Analysis and Preparation of Conditions for Deployment of High-Temperature Nuclear Reactors established by the Minister of Energy in July 2016 was a broadly understood analysis of the needs of the Polish economy, analytical, design and production capabilities of Polish industry and Polish research centres, analysis of costs and possibilities of financing the project, analysis of the legal environment and foreign cooperation opportunities. The most important element of these works, was to propose a specific reactor technology guaranteeing implementation success. . A fourth generation HTGR modular reactor, a gas-cooled high-temperature reactor, has been proposed. This is a mature and practically tested technology. In Poland we can expect commercial implementation in the early 2030s. 

It is worth emphasizing that the Ministry of Energy included in the Strategy for responsible development, known as Morawiecki plan, among the priority programs “preparation, using Polish industrial and scientific potential, implementation of high temperature HTR nuclear reactors for the production of industrial heat in cogeneration and support for Polish research and development of materials for the fourth generation of reactors”

The results of the work of the Ministry of Energy related to HTGR technology were presented by the Polish delegation at the General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The presentation sparked a keen interest in the world and put Poland at the centre of discussions and plans related to this technology.

The main event related to international interest was the World HTR Conference in Warsaw in October 2018. The weekly conference collected practically all global experts associated with high-temperature technology. Over 200 participants with dominant groups of experts from China and the USA discussed both research and commercial aspects of this technology.

In discussions with foreign partners in recent years, the basic criteria that we paid attention was the possession of comprehensive competencies in the field of construction of high-temperature reactors, which at the time have China and Japan only. All other potential foreign partners are currently at a stage comparable to ours or have only fragments of technology. While China, having a pebble-bed type reactor, is already practically at the commercialization stage and is more interested in sales rather than in joint development. Japan is different. Japan has a functioning, (on hold after Fukushima earthquake), prismatic type reactor and was ready to consider proposals for cooperation and joint construction of a commercial reactor. The Japanese Atomic Energy Agency even awarded preliminary funds to start analytical work together with the National Centre for Nuclear Research (NCBJ). Last year there was a series of meetings with representatives of the Japanese government and business. Meetings with the head of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (critical to the development of nuclear energy), representatives of the METI and MEXT ministries, representatives of the ruling party in the Japanese parliament, as well as government agencies and many Japanese industrial organizations were particularly important. As a result of all these activities, a formula of cooperation was developed, which was to be subject to further work after the initial acceptance of the direction by Japan at the beginning of this year.

The scope of international cooperation has a much wider context than what was outlined above. The cooperation with American companies, especially in the area of some technological solutions including nuclear fuel, will be especially important in the aspect of the reactor in the commercial version. The US government is currently strongly supporting the development of nuclear energy, especially in the field of modular reactors, including IV generation reactors such as HTR. However, until the beginning of real activities in Poland, our negotiating position in relation to pragmatic Americans is unfortunately rather weak.

European competences in this field, except the United Kingdom, are already very scattered. Nevertheless, the European Commission, and especially its representatives from Euratom, with whom this issue was discussed several times, are aware of the directions of energy development in the world and the fact that it is not possible to fuel the economy only by RES. The best proof is the financing by the EC of a number of development projects in the energy sector based on nuclear reactions, including the GEMINI + project, which is focused precisely on the development of high-temperature reactors. The chairmen of this European project was also the chairmen of the Team appointed by the Minister of Energy.

Summing up the actions we have taken so far, we can say that Poland has a pre-defined project of the HTGR development, whose implementation can significantly affect the development of non-emission industrial and district heating, not only in Poland, but also in other countries that do not have irrational disgust towards nuclear fission power. Poland has a chance for an alliance with a Japanese partner, with whom we can develop commercial application of this technology. However, more decisive steps on our part are needed to establish real cooperation. There are also other interested parties, such as the USA or some European countries, for whom the commercialization of HTR technologies is crucial and creating real competition to China development.

The advantage of Poland in this race, apart from its own large market for this solution, is the possibility to finance the test version of the reactor with research and development resources, and possibly also European ones, which will allow to build Polish know-how in this field. After we complete the Gospostrateg project, it is worth considering the launch of the special line at the National Centre for Research and Development to finance the construction costs of the test reactor (or European test reactor?). The funds for the development of the commercial version may be provided by Polish companies and our foreign partner interested in such a solution. American partners could also be interested in contributing to the investment.

It is worth to underline the potential benefits that Poland will bring the HTGR project: 

  • Reducing the dependence of our economy on the import of fossil fuels (gas and oil) used in heat generation, because nuclear reactors, including HTGR, are the only one real non-emission alternative to fossil fuels for large scale heat generation. 
  • Obtaining a significant technological advantage in the form of a non-emission heat source with a small unit CAPEX that can be used for cogeneration and low power generation.
  • Increasing the resilience of our economy to new EU environmental regulations, not only related to CO2 emissions, but above all to the so-called the carbon footprint of products. The EC is working on this indicator, which will put Polish companies in a worse competitive position compared to companies from other EU countries.
  • Impulse for economic growth based on the development of products with very high added value. The implementation of an ambitious science and infrastructure project will launch a series of interactions throughout the Polish economy, especially in international cooperation. 
  • Increasing Polish potential in the area of the energy technology exports. The modular HTGR reactor due to the very high safety standards, relatively small CAPEX size and the multiplicity of potential applications will naturally become an export commodity.
  • Synergy with the Polish nuclear energy program. The development of HTGR will involve the development of nuclear potential in institutes and industry. It will allow to raise the staffing level and create opportunities for sub-suppliers of components for nuclear energy, which will pay off when we build large nuclear power units.
  • In the long term, when reactor output temperature reaches around 1000 degrees Celsius, low-cost and zero-emission hydrogen production in the pyrolysis process will be possible, what can be crucial in the next phase of development of zero-emission motorization.

To support the benefits mentioned above, it is worth to recall that the costs of heat generated from gas estimated in the report of the Team were equal to the cost of heat from HTGR at the price of CO2 emission allowances of €20 per ton and coal at €50 per ton. In the year the report was created, the allowances prices were at €7 per ton, today we are definitely above €20, which is not the end of the increase in the prices of CO2 emission allowances.

In the discussion on the future of HTGR technology, time is also very important. The existing Polish activities have contributed to the growth of interest of companies working on small reactors in our part of the world. And here are the latest news only from our region:

  • In February this year Energoatom (Ukraine) announced plans to conclude a contract establishing a consortium with Holtec International (USA) and Excelon Generation (USA), under which a feasibility study for the construction and implementation of the SMR-160 reactor in Ukraine will be carried out. This reactor is a small modular pressurise water reactor (PWR) with 160 MWe generation III power.
  • In March this year SNN SA (Romania) signed a cooperation agreement with NuScale Power (USA) in the licensing and construction of the NuScale SMR reactor. The agreement was signed with the support of the US Department of Energy. NuScale SMR is a replaceable small pressurise water reactor (PWR) with a capacity of 200 MWt or 60 MWe generation III.
  • In March this year Fermi Energia (Estonia) chose Moltex Energy (UK-Canada) as the preferred technology in its plans to establish production of zero-emission energy in the Baltic region. Both companies have signed a cooperation agreement. Moltex SSR is a molten salt reactor (SSR-W) generation IV concept. This type of reactor with a temperature at the output of 500-600 degrees Celsius is competitive to HTGR.

The benefits of developing HTGR technology by Poland are therefore obvious, which is why the postulate of taking next urgent steps is justified: 

  • The development of HTGR technology should be broadly considered in Polish Energy Policy till 2040 (PEP2040), and then after accepting this document, based on this provision, create formal development conditions, for example in the form of a government directional resolution. 
  • You can also do nothing and put our country in the role of a passive observer of the development of new, attractive and clean heat production technology.

* The views presented in this article are private opinions of dr Józef Sobolewski and do not represent the position of any institution.