Platom

This article is sponsored by Platom. In this article, we look at the views of students on the role of nuclear power in the fight against climate change and the future of Chinese nuclear power.

Nuclear power and climate change

Nuclear power has become an important form of energy production in the fight against climate change. Every operator in the energy sector must take into account the zero-emission targets. We simply can no longer deal with energy sources that create carbon dioxide emissions. Wind, solar and nuclear power are the major zero-emission production options to be taken into consideration, while hydro, biomass and waste has limited potential. Wind and solar power work well to a certain extent in existing power systems, but without a comprehensive energy storage method, variable renewable energy (VRE) is very hard to connect in large amounts (> 50 %) to the electricity grid.

The nuclear generation profile generally follows primary production, as high capital costs and low operating costs require high uptime in order to make the highest returns from the power generation. Nuclear power can be flexible, but it is rarely economically viable.  However, when compared to VRE production, nuclear power generation is predictable and steady, which offers great benefits for the stability of the electricity grid. In France, for example, nuclear power covers about 75% of electricity production, which would not be profitable in the current markets with VRE and energy storage. Nuclear power thus provides an excellent primary production source with zero-emission for current and future energy systems.

Finland’s nuclear culture is known worldwide for its excellent safety record. This gives us good competitiveness in the international market, says Pekka Ottavainen, CEO of STUK International Oy. “With the help of STUK International Oy, we can improve nuclear and radiation safety in countries where it is needed, but where adequate competence for operating is not found yet. Finnish competence has a very good international reputation in this field and countries are generally interested to cooperate with us” [1]. Finnish nuclear companies can use Finland’s good reputation in nuclear safety when arriving to new international markets. Pushing Finnish nuclear power to the world may be one of Finland’s most effective ways to reduce emissions globally.

Many energy technology students are interested in developing the Finnish nuclear industry further and are already working in the nuclear power field. At Aalto University, the teaching of nuclear power is very neutral, and both the good and bad aspects of nuclear power are discussed. This will allow each student to form his or her own opinion on the need for nuclear power today and in the future based on facts. I believe that most of the energy technology students are aware of the serious threat of climate change, and thus see nuclear power playing a critical role in the future zero-emission energy system.

The popularity of nuclear power has been declining in the world after nuclear accidents, and in the western world, nuclear power has not been built much after the 1980s. Following the Fukushima accident, many countries decided to close their nuclear power plants early. In Finland, nuclear accidents have not affected the popularity of nuclear power as much as in the rest of the western world, and nuclear power is currently quite popular in Finland, as the fight against climate change is finally starting to be taken seriously. In Finland, the challenges in building nuclear power have been more in the delayed projects and rising costs. This is worrying with conventional nuclear power because the construction relies heavily on the LCOE. A major problem with elaborate projects has been the lack of standards and reference plants, which can make the purchase of individual parts and services very expensive. In the future, small modular reactors (SMR) could be the solution to the problems of today’s large nuclear power plants. SMR’s have lower power in reactor, which is naturally easier to control, so the security measures do not need to be as comprehensive. In addition, smaller reactors could be manufactured as a production chain, which will lower the cost of individual parts. Both of these characteristics reduce the capital costs of SMR plants, enabling nuclear power to remain competitive in the future. 

Nuclear power in China

China is the third-largest producer of nuclear power in the world and is constantly building more nuclear power plants. In 2018, China had 48 nuclear power plants in operation and nine new ones under construction. [2] Nevertheless, nuclear power accounted for just over 4% of China’s electricity production in 2018. Thus, there would be enormous potential for China to increase the share of nuclear power for its growing energy demand and to replace existing coal plants. Currently China is the world’s largest builder and developer of nuclear power and is one of the first SMR plant builders.

China has been developing the new high-temperature gas-cooled reactor pebble-bed module (HTR-PM), which is expected to be commissioned within 2019 [3]. The peddle-bed reactor under construction at Shidao Bay is cooled with helium and is graphite moderated. Thanks to the helium coolant, a high temperature of 750 degrees is obtained in the reactor, which allows the steam temperature to be at 566 degrees, making a high efficiency of 40 % in electricity generation. In China’s HTR-PM project, two reactors will generate 210 MW of electric power for the turbine. [4]

The HTR-PM project can play a very important role in reducing China’s emissions. If the reactors are completed successfully and cost-effectively, they can replace existing coal boilers, as the temperature of the generated steam is the same as in existing coal boilers. The infrastructure of old coal power plants can be utilized, which will significantly decrease the costs of new nuclear power plants. If China really takes climate change seriously, they have a potential solution here for large and rapid emission reductions.

In China, energy policy decisions are made quickly and construction times of power plants are an order of magnitude faster than in Western countries. Fast changes in the energy field can help nuclear power gain ground in China in a fast phase. As I mentioned earlier, China has a huge potential to increase the share of nuclear power in energy production. The Chinese market can be difficult for Western companies, but if they manage to break through, the nuclear equipment manufacturers could obtain access to a very large and growing nuclear power market in China. In Western countries, nuclear power has been badly upwind, but in China, the potential of nuclear power is just starting to be realized.

We thank Platom and all the other companies whose support enabled us to travel to China. The overseas excursions give to us students completely new insights into global energy challenges. In China, we realized the immense scale of greenhouse gas emissions as well as the global scale of climate change. It shows us that we need solutions to tackle the climate change that work all over the world. An expanded perspective will enable current students to become global problem solvers in the future. 

References

[1] STUK. Tavoitteena riippumaton ja osaava ydinturvallisuusviranomainen Saudi-Arabiaan. 19.9.2017. Available: https://www.stuk.fi/-/tavoitteena-riippumaton-ja-osaava-ydinturvallisuusviranomainen-saudi-arabiaan

[2] PRIS. Country Statistics. China. 2018. Available: https://pris.iaea.org/PRIS/CountryStatistics/CountryDetails.aspx?current=CN

[3] Nuclear Engineering International. HTR-PM: Making dreams come true. 29.2.2019. Available: https://www.neimagazine.com/features/featurehtr-pm-making-dreams-come-true-7009889/

[4] World Nuclear Association. Small Nuclear Power Reactors. September 2019. Available: https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nuclear-power-reactors/small-nuclear-power-reactors.aspx