Nuclear energy is the basis of the country’s sustainable energy development

Dr. Eng. Bogomil Manchev, executive director of GCR

Dear Mr. Manchev, at the beginning of our conversation, could you give a brief overview of the situation in European nuclear energy to date? 

Starting with the fact that today we are witnessing a resurgence of nuclear energy in Europe. This is quite noticeable in countries such as Great Britain, France, Finland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovakia, which are starting to develop their nuclear energy. There are, of course, countries such as Spain and Germany that are trying to give up nuclear power, but in my opinion, this will play a bad joke on them. Apart from nuclear and coal plants, no other option for planning and producing baseload electricity has yet been discovered.

Without basic energy, there is no way to make a sustainable management of energy systems, in which we can add all kinds of other energies, such as those produced by the sun, wind, water, etc. Renewable energy sources, including water, have no how to always count because they depend on nature and many other external conditions. We cannot rely on that kind of energy and be sure that no matter what happens people will have peace of mind that they will have electricity at home.

One such sustainability can be provided by nuclear energy, which depends very little on external conditions. Nuclear power plants rely on a number of systems that ensure their operation in all kinds of storms, hurricanes, snow, sun, lots and lots of water, etc. They can be guaranteed to operate for 8,000 hours a year. The remaining 760 hours are needed to refuel them with nuclear fuel. When a unit is decommissioned, the plant’s other nuclear units operate sustainably. Coal plants, of course, can also operate 8,000 hours a year, but due to environmental issues, we will have to part with them.

You mentioned coal plants. In this regard, how do you see the environmental aspects of different types of energy production?

Coal-fired plants emit significant amounts of carbon dioxide, particulate matter and sulfur oxides. Unfortunately, we are unable to find a cheap, accessible and safe way to capture them. An additional aggravating fact about the Bulgarian coal plants is that they are designed to operate with domestic coal, which has a high sulfur content. Natural gas also has its peculiarities. It burns at high temperatures and emits huge amounts of nitrogen oxides, which are even worse than carbon dioxide. The technical measures that can capture these nitrogen oxides are also quite expensive. Therefore, for natural gas to enter the concept of clean energy, it must be mixed with at least 20 or 30% hydrogen.

Modern natural gas plants generate just over 500kg of carbon dioxide to produce 1MWh of energy. In comparison, for the production of the same amount of energy, a nuclear power plant generates 10kg of carbon emissions. This is significantly less than the emissions generated by RES plants, which are estimated at 90 – 120kg for wind power plants, 50 – 60kg for photovoltaics, and 13kg for hydropower plants.
Radioactive contamination should also not be speculated about. The radiation background at the Kozloduy NPP is two times lower than that around us, as we speak now. However, the radiation effect of solar parks has yet to be clarified.

Their work is based on the photo effect, in which, as we know, ultraviolet rays knock electrons out of silicon crystals, thus producing a current. This gives rise to passive radiation, which certainly has an impact on people and the environment. On the other hand, depending on the strength of the wind, the blades of wind turbines can rotate for example at 10, 20, or 30Hz. The energy they produce, however, must always be fed to the grid at a frequency of 50Hz. This frequency modulation greatly burdens the surrounding space and affects the people working below, the animals, and the birds.

For example, a study recently conducted in the wind turbine-strewn Nevada desert showed that all reptiles near the generators had disappeared. These are all indications that measures should be taken. In recent decades, the world has spent huge amounts of money on so-called RES. A study has been done for the period between 2010 and 2020, which shows that the achieved ecological effect of this is only 1.7%. If the same funds were invested in the construction of nuclear power plants, the reduced use of coal, oil, and gas would lead to an effect of 45%. This difference is taken into account, and therefore it is not by chance that the world is turning to nuclear energy. It is no coincidence that nuclear technology is considered “green” in June 2022.

Against this background, what is happening in the world right now? What new capacities are being built and are in the process of being studied and planned?

Here are some of the things the world is trying to do. France has decided to build 14 additional reactors by 2050. In Great Britain, another 17 thousand megawatts of capacity are to be built. The US Senate has approved a program for 90,000 megawatts of new nuclear capacity in the US by 2050. About twenty thousand megawatts of these are in the form of small modular generators, with the goal of adopting this technology. In China, it is planned to build a new 150 thousand megawatts of nuclear power by 2060, which will operate on the territory of the country.

In Russia, a decision was made for a little more than 20 new reactors by the end of 2040. Reactors are being built in Egypt – 4, in Bangladesh – 2, in Abu Dhabi 4 have been built and 4 more are under construction, options for building reactors in Saudi Arabia. South Africa intends to build between 10,000 and 12,000 megawatts of nuclear power to replace the coal it currently uses. Turkey has started the construction of the fourth block. Most likely next year, the first block of the plant will be physically launched, which showed exceptional seismic resistance during the recent severe earthquake in the country.

In Romania, an agreement was signed for 4,600MW, which will be distributed either in two large blocks or in four smaller ones. The country also has ambitions to build a plant for small modular reactors. Poland also signed a 9,000MW nuclear power agreement. So things in the world begin to look quite different. The intention is to build 1000 reactors of 1000MW each by 2050-2060. This is a huge technological challenge for manufacturing in the world. The countries that can actually produce reactors now are France, South Korea, Russia, China, and to some extent Japan. In the US there are programs with which they are also going to restore their production.

In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about small modular reactors. How do you see the possibilities for their wider application?

Yes, in recent years there has been a lot of noise about the so-called small modular reactors. These are reactors with a capacity of several to 370MW and are not new to the world. They are used in remote areas where it is difficult to run a power line, and also in icebreakers and nuclear submarines. The first such 5MW reactor was commissioned more than fifty years ago in Yakutia to serve the region’s local mining industry. This reactor is still in operation, currently being upgraded to 50MW. Some people believe that autonomous or distributed systems can be built today with small reactors.

However, in my opinion, this is quite far back in time. The construction and operation of small reactors in densely populated areas seems almost impossible because it is related to the preservation of nuclear fuel and solving the problems of spent radioactive material. Unlike the heavy and long cartridges of large plants, small cartridges can be transported differently, which creates conditions for unregulated disposal, including acts of terrorism. Therefore, there are many things that need to be fixed, related to, for example, the law on the safe use of nuclear energy or the global norms for the transport of hazardous waste. Colleagues worldwide are working on these issues, but it takes time.

You have outlined in considerable detail the prospects and challenges facing global nuclear energy. But what is happening in our country?

The good news is that we now have a vision which, for the first time in 34 years of transition, has been presented by the government. It was submitted to the 48th National Assembly in January and covers a thirty-year period – from 2023 to 2053. Our vision envisages the use of the two sites in Belene and Kozloduy, where two nuclear units will be built respectively. These four new nuclear units should enable the country to phase out thermal plants after 2032-2038. Some of the units of these plants will remain in cold reserve to be available in case of cataclysms.

It is written in the vision that by 2050 we will have 4 more nuclear blocks on the territory of Bulgaria. They will operate sustainably, along with another 12,000MW of solar farms, 4,000MW of wind, and 5,000MW of hydrogen production facilities. It is planned that PAVEC will have a total capacity of 2000MW, with that of Chaira to be increased to 1000MW, and a new plant will also be built in the Rhodopes. During this period, the capacity of our energy system will also have to be increased. Currently, it can carry around 12 – 13TW, and the goal is to achieve a capacity of at least 30TW. At times when there is excess renewable energy produced, it will need to be transported to hydrogen production facilities.

This hydrogen will then be deposited in the gas transmission network so that we can continue to use natural gas as an energy source. The production of hydrogen itself should start long before 2050 because it has its specifics and it takes time to master the specifics of this technology. All these things are foreseen, written in our vision, and the government and the presidency have committed to having conversations with various technology companies. You know that technology company Westinghouse is starting to develop the Kozloduy site. It starts with unit seven, but we strongly want them to give an offer for two nuclear units, because if we buy separately we will spend a lot more money.

The country has focused on developing the Belene site together with France. Whether we will use the facilities already purchased or start procedures for new facilities is to be jointly decided. I believe that there is a possibility for the blocks to be realized with the equipment bought from Russia, without using their services. During this year’s Bulatom event, the possibilities for the state to take over two such large sites – in Kozloduy and Belene – will be discussed. Because these two large objects can be developed in 5 or 6 years, but the state must give state guarantees for export credits, which will be over 20 billion euros. Separately, there should be several billion euros on each self-participation platform.

Against the background of these significant projects in nuclear energy, what is the issue with the training of personnel and nuclear specialists?

This topic is very important for the development of nuclear energy. When it comes to Kozloduy NPP, efforts are being made there and there are enough trained personnel. Belene will need people with new qualifications and it is clear that their creation will not happen overnight. After a decision is made and an agreement is signed to start the construction of the nuclear power plants, we usually have a period of 8 to 10 years to prepare the necessary personnel. This can be done in the universities in Bulgaria or in the countries of our partners. There are nuclear institutes in France that study nuclear energy and there are also in Bulgaria. However, in order for these people to go to study, they must have the prospect of working in nuclear power plants. And this perspective is born only when we have real contracts.

In conclusion, what is the main point with which you would like us to summarize our conversation?

The main emphasis lies in the fact that nuclear energy and renewable energy sources solve the issue of emission-free energies. This is the main sign of sustainable development in the country. In order to have sustainable development, we must have a sustainable and secure supply of energy. And this is electricity, as our country is electricity oriented. We are not gas oriented, because a very small part of our country consumes gas and a very small part of our population is gasified. The position to be taken in energy should be made by many governments, be consistent and be the same over time.

Source (in Bulgarian):