There are several ways to generate electricity.
In most cases, a motive force is required to turn a turbine, which is connected to an electric generator to produce electricity. Steam force to turn the turbine is one source of motive power for turning the turbine, hydro, i.e., water pressure stored in dams or wind are the other two sources. One way to generate steam is to heat the water by burning any type of fossil fuels, such as oil, gas, wood, etc. Another way to make steam is to create heat by creating a chain reaction by splitting uranium atoms, a process called fission, using slightly enriched or in some designs natural uranium; this is how a nuclear power plant works. All steam driven power plants operate on the same principal, once the steam is generated, the rest of the systems involved in producing electricity are very similar.
So what are the choices for Armenia to generate electric power for the country? Use oil, use natural gas, or other fossil fuels which Armenia does not have, or use hydro power plants, which Armenia does have good hydroelectric generation capacity, or use photovoltaic solar panels or wind powered turbines, which Armenia has developed some capacity with both. In order to have a reliable and sustainable electricity generation, Armenia should have a mix all of the above types of power generation capabilities. Now for this discussion, I won’t go through the pros and cons of each option, but discuss one option that I believe is very important: the nuclear power generation option.
Armenia is currently operating one nuclear power plant, Medzamor. Medzamor plant has two units, but only one unit, unit 2 is operating. The plant produces 375 MW (megawatts) of power providing between 30 to 35 percent the county’s electricity needs.
Medzamor is of Soviet design. It is a VVER 440-V230 type reactor. This means it is a pressurized, light water cooled reactor that uses slightly enriched uranium. It was originally designed for a 30 year lifespan and launched its operations in 1980. It was, however, shut down after the 1988 earthquake and remained so for the next seven years. In 1995, many safety upgrades were made to the reactor, and it has been running safely issues since then.
Similar to many other western plants, Medzamor has gone through life extension upgrades and is good to run until 2026. However, if no new other plants are built, Armenia can look into extending the life of Medzamor beyond 2026, but that is probably not the best option.
Operating Medzamor is vital to Armenia’s national security, vital to the country’s economic growth, and essential to basic needs of everyday life in Armenia. As such, Armenia has no choice other than running Medzamor until a replacement unit is built and commissioned.
So are the choices for a replacement unit, another Nuclear Power Plant? If you ask me, my answer is yes. And if you ask what type and what type/size reactor, my answer is building several Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). Such reactors have power generation capability from 25 to 300 MW. SMR designs have inherent safety features and most of the components can be factory-built, manufactured offsite with increased quality, and shipped to site for assembly, hence, substantially reducing the construction time as well as the cost. Other advantage of SMR is that these units can run without refueling for a much longer duration, five years in some designs and can be built underground, eliminating the impact of any natural or manmade hazards to these plants.
There are over 20 SMR designs in various sizes. The SMR designs include many from the Russian Federation, the U.S., France, Republic of Korea, and China. So there are many choices, but the decision as what type of SMR Armenia should built involves many factors, such as fuel supply, financing, etc. has to be decided by the Armenian government. However, the decision must be made very quickly in order to be able to start the construction and to finish the project in a timely manner to support the eventual retirement of Medzamor.