ESTONIA’S FERMI ENERGIA HAS SIGNED an enhanced cooperation agreement with Finnish energy company Fortum and Belgian engineering group Tractebel to study Baltic small modular reactor (SMR) development with a view to deploying the technology in the next decade.

“The highest value of the agreement is in starting mutual learning through practical working with current nuclear energy producers”, said Kalev Kallemets, CEO and co- founder of Fermi Energia, organiser of January’s New Energy Generation conference in Talinn.

Fermi Energia is also in discussions on similar cooperation agreements with two other European utilities on in-depth analysis of spent fuel management and on SMR construction timing and planning. The studies are due for by the end of 2020 and will be made public in early 2021.

Fermi Energia is a privately owned SMR deployment company, seeking to achieve the first deployment of SMR in the European Union. It wants to build the plant in Estonia, arguing that it offers both carbon neutrality and security of power supply in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Kallemets said Estonia would also like to develop a wider overseas market internationally by establishing SMR alliances with the UK, Ireland, Finland and other countries.

At the company’s annual conference in Tallinn it presented the, results of studies on, ‘Milestones of SMR deployment programme’ and ‘Comparative analysis of licenced SMRs’.

Kallemets wants an innovative nuclear solution that is competitive with other investments. Four reactor options have been shortlisted (see below) for a reactor site yet to be determined.

The Baltic SMR will become a necessity to secure electricity for the region, says Kallemets, because Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will desynchronise from the Russian electricity grid by the end of 2025. From then on, Fermi Energia says nuclear power from SMRs is a very important element in achieving reliable low carbon power supplies for the Baltic countries (although the first unit will not be deployed until the 2030s).

Tractebel sees the cooperation agreement as an opportunity to support Estonia with developed know-how and capacity on the SMR deployment project, according to Denis Dumont, Tractebel’s general manager for the company’s nuclear power business.

The company could effectively serve as a project manager of the pathfinding SMR once the feasibility studies are over. Fortum has carried out R&D activities on SMRs for several years, said Petra Lundstrom, the company’s vice president, nuclear services. Fortum is an energy generation company with majority ownership from the Finnish state that operates 2819MW of nuclear capacity in Finland and Sweden, among its 150 power plants.

Shortlist of incumbent SMR models

Anicet Toure, nuclear product manager for Tractebel and Philippe Monnette, Tractebel’s new-build department manager, told the conference that they had co-authored a feasibility study for the Estonian SMR project, which had examined 50 advanced reactor designs.

Toure said the list was narrowed early in the study process by two criteria: the design must have a thermal capacity of more than 25MW and the first unit must be deployed by 2035. The 2035 deployment date is when Fermi would like to see the first SMR operational in Estonia.

Kallemats said that the company would ideally like to deploy its SMR within the next decade but the company will not apply for a construction licence in Estonia until a first-of-a-kind unit has been licensed, constructed and started commercial power generation in North America. Kallemats said that “is expected to take place around 2026 to 2028.”

As a result, Kallemets added that construction of an Estonian SMR would begin in 2029-30, at the earliest.

Toure said that “five serious designs” scored well in the study:

  • Moltex Energy’s SSR-W molten salt reactor (UK);
  • NuScale Power’s modular pressurised water reactor (USA), whose 60MW units can be combined, up to 12 units providing a total capacity of 720MW, with generation costs of $40-90/MWh;
  • Terrestrial Energy’s 200MW molten salt reactor (USA), with generation costs of $30-60/MWh;
  • GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy’s 300MW BWRX, a boiling water reactor design (USA);
  • A Chinese high-temperature gas-cooled reactor, already ruled out “on cost concerns.”. That reactor would have produced power at an estimated cost of $80-120/MWh.

Monnette said that successful nuclear plant construction, required an “appetite to invest in new nuclear, including small reactors and creation of trust in nuclear safety.” He also emphasised SMRs’ potential role in nuclear waste management. “SMRs answer all of these challenges,” he said, adding that SMRs can “provide industrial heat [and] thermal storage,” in addition to generating electricity.

Sandor Liive, Fermi’s chairman, told the conference “Estonia had relied on shale oil for its domestic oil supply for more than 100 years, but that is no longer possible due to the rapidly rising price of carbon fuels and increasingly stringent European Union clean energy requirements, specifically the target that each EU member state achieve carbon neutrality by 2050”. Liive said the industry needs standardised, collaborative licensing and regulation.

Climate change to determine SMR role

Juri Ratas, Estonia’s prime minister, said that combating climate change and meeting the EU 2050 carbon neutrality targets was an “ever-more-central issue” for his country.

Ratas noted that a public-private partnership was one way in which emissions reductions could be achieved, and that the Estonian government had worked with Fermi on the Baltic SMR project for this reason.

With regards to the project’s funding, Kallemets said that Fermi is “looking carefully at the Finnish Mankala model, so that shareholders either consume or off-take the power generated from the power plant.”

He described as “neither planned for, nor excluded” a government share, saying “if the government expresses interest at a more mature stage of the project’s development, certainly it can be meaningfully possible.”

In Finland’s Mankala collective ownership model, shareholders benefit from power production on a not-for-profit basis, with any profit returned to the company.

Security of supply concerns

Liive said it was very important that Estonia develop a “contemporary, small power plant that will [also] guarantee security of supply.”

The Baltic region is connected to Russia via Poland, so when the Polish grid, is separated from the Russian grid in 2025 the Baltics will also no longer be linked with Russia. Poland, Finland and Germany all import power from Russia.

“Wind and sun are not enough and therefore Estonia is planning a 500MW pumped hydro plant, but the energy from it can only be used on the same day”, Liive said.

Finland’s regulator prepares for SMRs

Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) published a report on 30 January on the conditions for safe operation of small modular reactors (SMRs) as STUK prepares for the licensing of new power plant types.

A working group established by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment is currently investigating the need to further develop the Nuclear Energy Act.

One of the topics under discussion is the current statutory licensing system of nuclear facilities and how to adapt it for licensing SMRs and monitoring their radiation safety.

“Globally, significant investments are being made on the development of SMRs and the parties showing interest are not just traditional nuclear power companies,” STUK said.

It added that many new organisations, such as cities, municipalities and the process industry have expressed interest in using SMRs for heat and power, although there are no concrete plans.

“We must be able to inform the parties considering the use of nuclear energy of the safety requirements that apply to novel nuclear power plants and must be capable of assessing the safety of the plants as necessary”, said Petteri Tiippana, director general of STUK.

“While technology is evolving rapidly, changing the existing licensing system and the instructions that supplement the legislation takes some time,” he added.

Tiippana said STUK is preparing for the future to ensure that the safety of SMRs will be at least at the same level as that of existing nuclear plants.

Canadian and US nuclear regulators are already developing regulatory activities related to proposed SMR projects.

Author information: Rumyana Vakarelska is a journalist covering the energy and environmental sectors