Staff from the US State Department’s Project Phoenix implementation partners, Sargent & Lundy, have visited Slovakia to carry out the initial phase of a field survey of sites for a feasibility study on deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs) that began in 2023.

The Phoenix Project is part of the US State Department’s Foundational Infrastructure for Responsible Use of Small Modular Reactor Technology (FIRST) programme, which was established in 2021 to provide capacity-building support to partner countries developing nuclear energy programmes to support clean energy goals. By August 2023 it claimed 20 partner countries in which it had invested some $21m.

Project Phoenix, announced by US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry at the COP27 climate conference in 2022, aims to support energy security and climate goals by supporting coal-to-SMR power plant conversions. The first recipients, announced in September 2023, were the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, with Slovenia joining earlier in February.

Slovak power utility Slovenské Elektrárne (SE) says three “American experts” from Sargent & Lundy, have visited Slovakia to carry out the initial phase of a field survey of sites for the feasibility study. They visited the Bohunice and Mochovce NPPs as well as the Nováky and Vojany coal-fired plants that are due to close.

Three American experts from this company Slovak power plants introduced the specific conditions of their plants and transferred them to the localities of the Bohunice and Mochovce nuclear power plants, as well as the Nováky and Vojana thermal power plants, where it ends with coal combustion.

The study is divided into several stages. It starts with the definition of the criteria for decommissioning the site taking into account possible negative factors such as seismicity, unsuitability of geological subsoil or surroundings, and lack of water for cooling. This is followed by a survey of possible sites and a selection of the most suitable ones. In the next phase, the most appropriate SMR technologies for each selected site are assessed. Finally, the licensing plan and the analysis of the capital costs of the individual alternatives are processed.

SE said a number of factors are included in the analysis: the purpose of the SMR (electricity generation, heating or cogeneration); existing infrastructure; climatic, geological and geographical conditions; as well as the availability of water for cooling. However, there are other socio-economic and environmental factors that may affect the final choice of sites.

The feasibility study is planned for 2023-2025. The initial SMR project and licensing process, including the environmental impact assessment is scheduled for 2026-2029 followed by the procurement of major components (2030-2033) for commissioning in 2035.

The Project Phoenix grant application was made by SE with the Slovak Economy Ministry, the Nuclear Regulatory Authority, the Slovak University of Technology, US Steel Košice and the Slovak Power Transmission System, VUJE. The aim is to support the transition from coal to nuclear energy "in a manner that prioritises nuclear safety, non-proliferation, security of energy supply, and sound financial considerations from the outset".

Slovakia currently has five nuclear reactors generating about half its electricity, with one more reactor under construction. The first two, at Bohunice, went into commercial operation in 1984 and 1985 respectively, while Mochovce 1 and 2 were connected to the grid in 1998 and 1999, respectively. Construction of Mochovce 3 and 4 began in 1986 but was halted in 1992. It was later restarted and Mochovce 3 entered service in 2023, with work continuing on Mochovce 4.

SE said it was considering SMRs because of the changing energy sector. “In the coming decades, electricity demand as well as electricity generation flexibility are expected to increase. However, the growing share of renewables, even in combination with repositories or hydrogen production, will not be able to cover these needs, so it is necessary to look at non-emission sources, which will ensure demand in the core network load band and will also allow better control of power in the electricity system. However, we need to reduce Slovakia's dependence on fuel and technology suppliers, and that is why we will diversify supplies.”

Image: The Project Phoenix team on the roof of the Vojany plant (courtesy of Slovenské Elektrárne)