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“Mini-nuclear power plants”: The belittling of nuclear power

“Mini-nuclear power plants may sound nice,” says Günter Pauritsch, head of the Center for Energy Management and Infrastructure of the Austrian Energy Agency, in an interview with ORF.at. However, the name conceals the fact that it remains a power plant that poses the same safety risks. In the event of an accident or a core meltdown – whether due to the smaller size of the SMRs – less nuclear material would be released. However, to replace the output of a large power plant, a large number of SMR systems were required, which in turn would increase the dangers.

According to Pauritsch, more reactors would represent more potential sources of error and provide a broader target for any terrorist attacks. Mini-nuclear power plants are therefore “much less elegant” than their name suggests. In addition, Pauritsch pointed out that SMRs are currently only “concepts” in Europe and the USA, ie projects whose functionality, safety and economic profitability are in the stars.

Weaker, but cheaper

There are currently dozens of projects for the development of mini-nuclear power plants around the world. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) defines SMR systems as nuclear reactors with a maximum output of 300 megawatts (MW), while in large power plants reactors are more than 1,000 MW more.

However, SMR have the advantage of being able to be built in series, which should generally result in a shorter construction time and lower costs. The systems could be pre-assembled in the factory and then transported to the site. Experts estimate that a 300 MW system will be possible for around one billion euros.

Reuters / Benoit Tessier

The expansion of the French Flamanville reactor has become a seemingly never-ending project

Billion graves Flamanville and Hinkley Point

Conventional nuclear power plants, on the other hand, have often developed into “GAU” lately, as the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” (“FAZ”) wrote. The French energy company EDF has been building the Flamanville three reactor block in Normandy with a planned output of 1,600 MW since 2007. According to current estimates, the new reactor will not be ready until 2023 at the earliest. The expected construction costs have increased to almost twelve billion euros over the past 14 years quadrupled. There are similar cost explosions and delays in the construction of the “Olkiluoto 3” reactor block in Finland.

Not to mention the British nuclear power plant Hinkley Point C: Five years ago, the London government gave the green light for the first construction of a nuclear power plant in the EU – which Great Britain still belonged to at the time – since the disaster in Fukushima, Japan in 2011. The originally estimated costs are up to now increased by over four billion to up to 22.5 billion pounds (24.56 billion euros). Lawsuits by Austria and other states before the European Court of Justice against the billion-dollar state subsidies for the major project approved by the EU Commission failed.

Russian pioneer at sea

Financial reasons for building mini-nuclear power plants are, however, also questionable for Pauritsch – he refers to the inverse scale effect on which the calculations are based: If large reactors were previously considered more economical because the volume effect could save money, the opposite would now be suggested. That is not plausible. Neither is the term “small” reactors – according to the concepts, SMR should be able to supply two million cities with electricity.

Pioneers for the SMR can be found at the “Akademik Lomonossow”: The ship with two nuclear reactors on board is located in the port city of Pewek in the Far East of Russia, where it has been supplying the local population and economy with electricity for a year and a half. State operator Rosatom plans to build its first onshore mini-reactor in 2028. For Pauritsch, however, this is of little relevance: “Do we really want reactors based on the Russian model in Europe?”

Final storage remains unsolved

However, the importance of nuclear power is dwindling worldwide: its share in electricity generation is only around ten percent, in the total energy supply it is only three percent. Pauritsch: “Nuclear power is not in a position to make a significant contribution.” In addition, “even after 70 years it is still unsolved” how and where radioactive waste should be disposed of over centuries.

This can be seen impressively in the example of Gorleben: Despite violent protests, the mine in Lower Saxony had been viewed for decades as a possible future repository for German highly radioactive nuclear waste and researched accordingly. Due to doubts about its geological suitability that could not be resolved, it was removed from the list of potential locations in the previous year;

Nuclear waste repository near Gorleben

APA/AFP/Nigel Treblin

After decades of conflict, the Gorleben chapter will soon be closed for good

“Geopolitical and Military Interests”

The German Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management (BASE) recently had an expert opinion on SMR drawn up – the résumé is critical to sobering. It also stated that sticking to nuclear power would “combine a multitude of motives, including industrial and economic development and geopolitical influence”.

“In the area of ​​SMR, too, industrial and geopolitical motives as well as military interests play a role. The majority of the countries that have SMR development activities have nuclear weapons programs and are building nuclear submarines and / or already have a large commercial nuclear program in place. ”This was also referred to by Pauritsch – countries like Great Britain and France, where President Emmanuel Macron recently had a billion Euros to promote nuclear power would be examples of this. The civil use of nuclear power is justification for the military.

Green coat

At the moment, the most powerful argument put forward by nuclear proponents is climate protection: a third of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide come from electricity production, while nuclear reactors do not emit any CO2. Without nuclear power, it is argued, the EU cannot become climate neutral by 2050 as planned. And another advantage of nuclear power is brought up: nuclear power plants, unlike renewable energies, would reliably deliver electricity, even in dark winter or on windless days.

For Pauritsch and many other experts, however, these are poor arguments: There can be no question of Co2 neutrality, during the mining and transport of the fissile material, mostly uranium, and during the construction of the power plant, greenhouse gases would very well be produced, as well as when the plant is demolished and the Storage of radioactive waste. In addition, it takes far too long to develop and build new nuclear power plants for them to accelerate the move away from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas.

Splitting power within the EU

How big the gap is on this issue can be seen within the EU and the struggle over taxonomy – economic activities are classified as sustainable if they contribute to one of six defined environmental goals, such as climate protection or the circular economy, and do not significantly harm any of the target areas ( “Do no significant harm” principle). A majority of the EU states want nuclear power to be included in the legal text, and France in particular has recently exerted considerable pressure.

Germany and Austria, among others, are resisting this: they recently presented a legal opinion in Brussels that classified the inclusion of nuclear power in the taxonomy as “open to challenge before the EU courts”. At least for the time being, however, the match should go in favor of the nuclear proponents, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), who has just left office, recently stated: The proposal to include it in the taxonomy could only be rejected if 20 EU members voted no: “That is a very high hurdle and is unlikely to be the case.”

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