Small Modular Reactors: A Good Choice for Armenia’s Energy

Nuclear isn’t the problem; the old Soviet-era reactor is.

The Armenian Nuclear Power Plant, commonly known as the Medzamor Nuclear Power Plant, is the only nuclear power plant in the South Caucasus located 22.4 west of Yerevan. The plant supplied approximately 40 percent of Armenia’s electricity in 2015. (Photo: Rupen Janbazian/The Armenian Weekly)

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.

 

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Robert Kalantari

Robert Kalantari is President and Chief Executive Officer of Engineering Planning and Management Inc. (EPM). Kalantari has over 30 years of engineering and management experience in the nuclear power industry. Before becoming President and Chief Executive Officer, he had previously held the role of Chief Operating Officer, Director of Engineering and Senior Consultant at EPM. Kalantari Joined EPM in 1984. In his current position as President and Chief Executive Officer, he is responsible for managing the entire organization. Prior to joining EPM, Kalantari was involved in the construction of nuclear power plants, and prior to that he worked for a nuclear utility.
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14 Comments

  1. Thank you for this useful and intelligent article by Mr. Kalantari.

    I hope Armenia listens to the Diaspora’s scientists, but I fear it does not.

    The Diaspora is a resource that is being vastly underutilized by Armenia. I hope Nikol Pashinyan realizes this. I fear he does not.

    I do like the author’s idea of putting power plants under ground where they are less vulnerable to attacks by certain of Armenia’s genocidal neighbors.

    • you are welcome Dave. Armenia also has many great scientists, including many in the field of nuclear science and nuclear power technology. In fact Metzamor is operated by all Armenian engineers, technicians, operators, etc. Very impressive for a small country with only one operating nuclear power plant to have such resources. So Armenia has the talent to operate these reactors, the challenge for the Armenian government is to find the best financing options for the project.

  2. The reality of the present issue is so obvious. The most cost effective delivery of energy will be replacing the present nuclear source with another. Armenia is just starting to emerge as an independent entity and it’s youth will replace the old oligarchy. Make Armenia energy independent. Plan for another nuclear reactor, one built by Americans.

    • I agree with Dr. Berjian to built a new reactor by Americans. In fact America has a very close to be licensed Small Modular Reactor designed by NuScale Power in Oregon. The challenge for Armenia will be the political consequence to chose a non-Russian designed reactor. Otherwise, the American designed and built reactors are the best choice for Armenia.

  3. The proposed end of life date for Medzamor is 2026, only eight years away. In that time Mr. Kalantari proposes to select one of 20 small modular reactor designs (SMR), have it progressed from conceptual to construction design, licensed, financed, and built. A forbidding undertaking indeed in less than a decade! Especially for the first of its type being built!

    The World Nuclear Association says that “licensing is a challenge for SMRs. Design certification, construction and operation licence costs are not necessarily less than for large reactors, placing a major burden on developers and proponents.”

    In contrast, 500 MW of solar, 500 MW of wind, and 1500 MWh of battery storage to carry the country through the nights when the wind does not blow could be designed, bid, and built in three to five years. And it will likely be for a fraction of what the reactor power would cost, if it ever got built and online. In contrast, renewable technologies are guaranteed to become cheaper every year, as they and their factories become more efficient.

    References:
    http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nuclear-power-reactors/small-nuclear-power-reactors.aspx
    https://cleantechnica.com/2018/06/14/new-us-solar-record-2-155-cents-per-kwh-400-mwh-of-energy-storage/

    • Renewable energy sources should be part of Armenia’s energy portfolio, but cannot be the only source. And with regard to building wind and solar and battery storage of 1500MW, really; do you think you can run a country with wind and solar and battery storage. Do you know that the entire country of US has about 500MW of battery storage capacity and these units, 1MW to 2MW units are used by local municipalities during pick hours to save money and not to pay a premium for spot electricity prices. And do you know how much each 1MW battery cost, $1.5M to $2M. With all do respect, I suggest before you make any meaningful comment, please do your research more carefully and provide a solution with backed up facts.

  4. What do we expect from a nuclear advocate. How about renewables like Germany. Time to retire the old elephant before a catastrophe happens

    • I am advocate of all technologies that will work and provide practical, uninterrupted and reliable electric energy source to Armenia, and as I said it my article, Armenia should look into exploring all technologies that will work are practical. Keep in mind that one technology may be practical and work for one country and not other. And speaking of renewable energy, do you realize that burning wood is considered renewable energy source? Do you realize that burning methane gas that is emitted from landfills (a very low grade gas that is full of pollution emitting stuff) is also considered renewable sources in some countries? And did you know that Germany is still using the dirtiest coal, called Lignite to generate electricity, in addition to hard coal and natural gas, and did you know that Germany still has 7 nuclear power plants running, and they imports some of their electricity from the neighboring counties that generate power from nuclear? So Germany is from being 100% renewable.

  5. It is vital to the country to have and control essentials for the nation, in my opinion they are POWER(ELECTRICITY), WATER,EDUCATION. In summery essentials take priority over any other needs, I hope Armenia does not become an unreliable country in the eyes of the world, with unreliability of political driven issues.Regardless is important to be proactive and not to start when panic bottom is activated. WE MUST PUT ELECTRICITY REQUIREMENT AS ABSOLUTE NUMBER 1… Hope the politicians recognise the issue. I wish all the best.GOD BLESS ARMENIA.

  6. I am not in favor of a nuclear power plant in R.A. The government should concentrate in making the country more energy efficient in all aspects, whether buildings, industry, and so on, by using insulation, solar panels, digital controls, smart meters and controls, a.i., etc. As far as power generation, use of gas turbines, solar panels, wind farms should be enough to complement what is existing generation.

  7. I agree with you that yes we need another nuclear power plant. In fact the liquid metal reactors are far more energy efficient, they do have technical challenges but they are the pinnacle of nuclear design. The expertise and the knowledge in nuclear technology is available and armenia will retain the nuclear physics and nuclear energy talent in the country. But as you said, the decision needs to be bold and pragmatic and decided in a timely manner.

    • I agree that there are many options for Small Modular Reactors, including liquid metal cooler reactors, but the problem is that some of these designs are far from completion, design certification and licensing. The pressurized water reactors, like NuScale Power design are based on known technologies and should be available to the market soon. I am all for other technologies and Armenia and world should consider building such reactors when they become available.

  8. The Op-Ed presented is short, to the point and makes it easy for readers who are not in this field understand the importance of this issue.

    Thank you for that. As noted, just below the title, the problem is the outdated plant. The existing plant has provided a much-needed service during very difficult times. A land locked country with hostile neighbors to the east and west, without fossil fuel resources doesn’t have too many options. The power plant needs to be replaced. The small modular nuclear power plant (SMRs) is an excellent solution.

    Since this issue plays such a vital and essential role on a national level, the new political leadership will have to work overtime. They need to take into consideration all possible suppliers of SMRs. The final choice will have to rest on affordability and the abilities of the Armenian engineers, technicians, operators to take care and manage the new plant. Since Armenia has such capable talent in the nuclear field we can rely on them to make the best choices. While we observe and provide guidance and support when needed.

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