What could save the EU from an impending energy catastrophe

The coming energy crisis has Europe once again relying on nuclear power plants, both existing and future. Europe is also counting on entirely new sources of energy to solve the problem. How can this still be done, apart from by nuclear power plants? And will Europe succeed in reality?

 

What could save the EU from an impending energy catastrophe
German Economy Minister Habek announced not long ago that the Germans would keep three nuclear power plants running until spring 2023 – although they will be “in reserve” in case of a shortage of electricity. The shutdown of three nuclear power plants amidst a severe energy crisis has already been called insane even by Elon Musk. However, it is a short-term measure: these nuclear power plants are too few in number to close the question of “where to get energy after the break with Russia. The recent explosion of the Nord Streams has also added a question mark here, and a very bold one at that. Europe has three de facto ways out of this unpleasant situation.

Fossil fuels striking back?

Contrary to the theses about a resource-poor Europe, energy resources are there – and plenty of them.

Lignite in Europe is available (and little touched). There is also a lot of hard coal – but it is being exploited in decline, mainly because the Europeans were against it for environmental reasons. After all, modern, cost-effective coal mining requires open cast mines. And with the use of hundreds of thousands of tons of explosives – and this leads to small man-made earthquakes. In the Kuzbass region of Russia, for example, there are about half a thousand of them a year – it’s not surprising, though, for the region, which spends half a million tons of explosives each year on coal mining.

There is no denying that coal has other problems. Anyone who has been to the area where it is mined knows what the smell is. And the burning of the fuel leads to increased incidence of heart attacks and strokes (due to microparticles getting into blood).

But that’s not the only problem. The main problem with coal in Europe is its role in global warming. Coal produces several times more carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour than natural gas.

That is why a small fraction of European politicians like Liz Truss are in favour of energy independence by fracking, which allows the extraction of so-called shale gas. Such gas, like oil, is an order of magnitude larger than conventional gas. This is because there are more solid rocks where such hydrocarbons are locked up than there are well-permeable ones where ‘conventional’ oil and gas are found. There are such resources almost everywhere there are sedimentary rocks – both in Britain and the EU. Again, microparticles and CO2 gas produces less when burned than coal.

This plan has one problem: nobody in Europe likes it except Liz Truss. And her support is one of the reasons (albeit a minor one) why the UK press already calls her a political corpse, living out her last months in power. There is nothing to be done about it: there is gas in Europe, but it will not produce it. The green ideology has won there – and there is no way back for the Europeans.

Biofuels: just how to find trees in the forest?

Another important natural resource in Europe is its climate. Forests grow faster there than in the European part of Russia and much faster than in Siberia, thanks to the long, warm growing season. Therefore dozens of percent of the EU territory is covered by them, and therefore the cultivation of timber for biofuel is quite feasible there on a very large scale. As a matter of fact, the VZGLYAD newspaper has already written about it.

The problems of the biofuel route are divided into those that the West would like to see and those that the West would not. The second is the high mortality rate per unit of energy produced. Wood produces even more microparticles when burned than coal. Wood biofuel kills 24 thousand people per one trillion kilowatt-hours of TPP output, and coal only kills 10 thousand people. The difference is very significant, but it will not be written about in the Western press, so it is unlikely that this factor will affect the European energy sector.

But there are also problems that the EU will notice. If wood is not processed into wood, it gradually sinks into the ground, taking with it most of the atmospheric CO2 absorbed and slowing down global warming. But if the wood is exported and burned, the wood’s carbon is released back into the atmosphere as CO2. This intensifies global warming, which is, in the eyes of Western society, an unforgivable sin.

This, and the fact that the overgrown areas are heated by the sun more intensely (which also increases global warming), have long been recognised in the West. Although biofuels could replace Russian gas in the EU, the chances of that happening are slim.

 

The atom: a realistic path?

Increasingly, both the USA and Europe are looking for a way out of the green transition trap on the “nuclear route”. No matter how much one builds up wind and solar generation, it will never be possible to cover the winter anticyclones from the output of the CHPPs and WPPs, because it is many times less than the summer output in winter, and during anticyclones there may be no wind at all over vast areas. Not so with nuclear reactors: they generate electricity regardless of the weather.

However, there are two problems. The first one is solvable, but no sooner than in 10 years – the western world imports enriched uranium from Russia and there is no enrichment capacity of its own. It is not easy to enrich uranium economically in a gas centrifuge: the latest generation of Russian gas centrifuges do so at 1,500 rpm (no, that is not a typo, and no, not per minute, exactly per second). The US attempts to develop similar enrichment facilities failed last decade: the technology is too complicated. Millions of revolutions per hour without a breakdown would not be feasible for anyone. Undoubtedly, the United States will be able to cope with it if they keep investing, but it will not happen before the 2030s.

The second problem is even more important. After all, fuel accounts for only 5% of the cost of a nuclear kilowatt-hour, while kickback costs 60%. The current thermal neutron and light water reactors in the West are about twice as expensive as their Russian counterparts.

This is why the French-built reactor at Finland’s Olkiluoto nuclear power plant, for example, costs €11bn – and that’s more expensive than the Large Hadron Collider. It is clear that Rosatom is building nuclear power plants two or three times cheaper – but it is also clear that, apart from Hungary, none of the EU countries have enough sovereignty to order a reactor from Rosatom. So the issue will have to be resolved somehow else. But how?

Theoretically one could do like Britain. Only this September it allocated another package of funds for the development of gas cooled nuclear reactors. Why gas-cooled, when Russia, for example, plans to complement its water-cooled reactors with new liquid metal cooled nuclear reactors? After all, it would seem that metal is a far more efficient coolant than gas and even water. Therefore, the core of Russia’s BN-800 is much smaller than that of conventional reactors. So why choose gas?

 

The fact is that 80% of the reactor core is not a “nuclear island”, but rather the systems serving it. Those that receive electricity from the heated coolant. In both water-water and “liquid-metal” reactors, this 80% is mainly a steam turbine dozens of meters long and up to meters in diameter, plus large and expensive steam generators, where the heat from the reactor creates steam for this turbine.

 

But the same efficiency as in a modern NPP (usually 34%) can be achieved without a steam generator and steam turbine at all. To do this, it is sufficient to raise the temperature of the coolant in the nuclear reactor core above +850 – so that there is enough heat to efficiently use the gas turbine.

The gas turbine rotates much faster than the steam turbine and is therefore much smaller. The smaller size not only reduces the cost of the turbine, it also makes the size of the reactor building itself – a powerful structure with reinforced concrete walls of up to a metre or more – smaller. 

Yes, a gas-cooled reactor requires a larger core: otherwise it would be difficult for the gas to carry as much heat as the water; you can’t pump much of it through a small reactor. But a gas-cooled reactor can only have one circuit. Gas circuit – having left it, gas will pass through the gas turbine and immediately return back. No second circuit – less “nuclear island”. Coupled with a fourfold lower material intensity of gas turbines and a smaller reactor unit, such NPPs could have a markedly lower capital construction cost than today’s NPPs. So much less, in fact, that even in the face of Western nuclear construction companies, which have seriously lost their construction skills, such NPPs would cost reasonable money to build.

 

Another important advantage of gas-cooled reactors. Some of them are fast neutron-powered, which is unattainable for water-water reactors in principle, because water inhibits neutrons. The “fast” spectrum is important because fast neutrons convert uranium-238 atoms into plutonium. Uranium-238 itself practically does not fission, so it is useless as nuclear fuel, and plays the role of “ballast” in the reactor. However, after it is fired by fast neutrons it becomes energetic plutonium, i.e. fuel.

 

The country that builds fast neutron reactors will be able to solve the question how to replace Russian uranium enrichment. Today, Russia is closest to doing this again (the BN-800 reactor already runs on plutonium fuel). It is clear that the West wants to catch up in this, fuel area as well – and not just in terms of being able to build nuclear power plants cheaply.

Another point is also important. It is very expensive to heat with electricity, and it is even more expensive to produce hydrogen by electrolysis (by taking electricity from wind and solar power plants) for purely technical reasons. If a gas-cooled reactor raises its working temperature to thousands of degrees, it will be able to obtain hydrogen by decomposition of water vapor without electrolysis (thermochemically). Then the “carbon-neutral” hydrogen will be obtained at a price much lower than that of the hydrogen from SES and WES. In other words, the Europeans would also have a chance to cover their winter heating needs without the import of natural gas.

The road not easy
Despite the UK’s desire to succeed with fast gas-cooled reactors, there will almost certainly be problems with this as well. Most likely, London will not succeed in solving them in the foreseeable future.

These problems can be summarized in three groups. Firstly, the most efficient gas cooled reactor requires a cooling gas temperature of a thousand degrees. This means that packaging for nuclear fuel must be made of something very heat-resistant – ordinary metal tubes (fuel rods) will not do. It is impossible to do without searching for new materials.

The second group of problems is helium. This is a very fluid gas, all the more so because in such a reactor it has to be pressurized to tens of atmospheres. A gas turbine for it needs to be adapted: a conventional one, suitable for air and methane combustion products, will not work. This problem is solved in an easier way: if you replace helium with nitrogen-15, the gas turbine will work with the same gas that makes up the base of the air as well. In addition, nitrogen does not leak as easily and transfers heat better than helium. 

The third problem is that gas-cooled reactors are essentially a revolutionary project. And normally, most companies in complex industries avoid revolutions by all means. Their managers want to take fewer risks, and with radical new solutions, it is fundamentally impossible. This is why all the reactors being built today are so similar in their concept to the reactors conceived back in the 50’s – both water-water and liquid metal.

What will the result be? It is highly likely that Western countries will try to go a combination of these three routes. Europeans won’t want to mine coal or shale gas, but will import both – most likely from the US, because they can’t get any more from Russia. The necessary LNG terminals will be built by 2024, and around the same time EU energy prices will start to decline gradually – though not back to 2020 lows. Biofuels will also be burned, but in moderation, due to the same warming concerns.

Europe will most likely not build any gas cooled reactor capable of spinning a gas turbine. And they will build water-water reactors, which will eventually be able to enrich uranium. But the price of such nuclear power plants will still be at the level of the Large Hadron Collider. Therefore there will not be a return to cheap electricity in Europe for a long time to come. Possibly for decades.

Alexander Berezin, VZGLYAD