No time to waste in Estonian SMR deployment, conference hears

10 February 2021

Estonia needs to put in place the necessary legislation and competencies if a small modular reactor (SMR) is to be in operation by 2035, speakers at a conference organised by Fermi Energia agreed yesterday. The Baltic country aims to stop generating electricity from oil shale by 2035, but has yet to officially launch a nuclear programme.

Fermi Energia CEO Kalev Kallemets speaking at yesterday's online conference

Fermi Energia was founded by Estonian energy and nuclear energy professionals to develop deployment of SMRs in Estonia. In July 2019, the company launched a feasibility study on the suitability of SMRs for Estonia's electricity supply and climate goals beyond 2030, following a financing round from investors and shareholders. It selected four SMR designs to be included in the feasibility study: Moltex Energy SSR-W300, Terrestrial Energy IMSR-400, GE Hitachi BWRX-300 and NuScale SMR. Fermi Energia has been cooperating with Sweden's Vattenfall, Finland's Fortum and Belgium's Tractabel.

The online conference - New Generation Nuclear Energy Conference: Leading the Force - is the second organised by Fermi Energia, which says it will now become an annual event.

The company's chairman, Sandor Liive, noted that since the event last year, Estonia has gained a new government. In the coalition agreement of the new government, nuclear energy has a special mention, he said. The partners agreed to continue the discussion about the possibility of using nuclear energy in Estonia as well as looking into the possibility of increasing the competencies in nuclear energy in the country. The coalition agreement also states the intention to stop generating electricity from oil shale by 2035.

"2035 is not that far away," Liive said. "More complicated decisions need to be taken sooner rather than later. And that is why the discussions must be over and the competencies acquired by that time ... 2035 would be the year the first modern SMR could be generating electricity in Estonia." However, he noted: "Before generating electricity, the plant has to be built, before that planned and a suitable site found for it. The government has to start planning officially and this decision can only be made together with the Estonian people."

This message was echoed by Fermi Energia CEO Kalev Kallemets, who said: "If we want to be taken seriously in having small reactors producing electricity by 2035, we cannot waste one year." He said in order to achieve this, a construction contract must be concluded by 2030 at the latest. He said the procedure for obtaining a building permit would take at least 12 months. "This is the procedure in which the regulator has to be convinced of the technology, the site and the applicant's capability of ensuring safety."

However, he noted that a regulator "cannot be put together in just a few months". Kallemets said procedures have to be assessed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), so the regulator has to be established a few years before the licensing procedure starts. In addition, a nuclear law - which would enable a regulator to be set up - needs to be drawn up and adopted beforehand.

"If we look at this timescale, it appears there is not a year to be wasted. We have to submit a thorough and practical proposal to the Estonian government to start the planning proceedings this year as soon as we have completed our analysis," Kallemets added. "There is a lot to be done yet."

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, who gave an opening address to the conference, said: "Estonia is not alone in seeking a future powered by clean, reliable fuel ... I believe that nuclear power must be part of the answer." He noted that developing a nuclear programme can be a long process that needs "smart regulation and sound financing". Grossi told the conference, "There are many stakeholders to reassure about its safety and relative value. With a well-structured milestone approach, the IAEA is here to help."

Torbjörn Wahlborg, senior executive vice president of Vattenfall, said SMRs could be a game changer by providing "plannable, or dispatchable, fossil-free nuclear generation". However, he said it remains to be seen whether they will be economically competitive.

"I believe the SMR technologies are very promising in this respect, and I think there is for sure room and a place for SMRs. One of the big advantages with SMR technology is their multipurpose applications. These SMRs can produce electricity, but they can also provide heat ... That is why Vattenfall is looking into this technology."

Technology choices

Kallamets said Fermi Energia has analysed SMR technologies with "the best experts and have made two principal decisions". Firstly, the company will only consider reactor designs that are currently in the licensing process and that are "a reliable option to be completed this decade". Secondly, that the final choice of design will only be made once the first reactor of that type has already been built.

"We are convinced there is one Generation IV reactor that can be built in Europe which is in use today," he said. "That is the high-temperature gas reactor developed by Ultra Safe Nuclear and that will be built in Canada. A high-temperature gas reactor is already in operation in Japan. That is why we have decided with Fortum, Vattenfall and Tractabel to take a closer look at this technology."

Kallemets said Fermi Energia's objective is to "a very carefully thought-out proposal with our partners that is implementable, which has the manpower and the financing".

Liive announced, "Today we can report that Tractabel is going to invest and will fairly soon become a shareholder in Fermi Energia."

Anicet Touré of Tractebel said the new agreement will accelerate collaboration between Tractabel and Fermi Energia in the coming years "to really make the deployment of SMRs a reality in Estonia and beyond".

Declaration on SMR licensing

During the conference, a declaration was signed by representatives of nine European organisations: Fermi Energia, Fortum, Vattenfall, Tractebel, Synthos Green Energy of Poland, CEZ of the Czech Republic, Romania's Nuclearelectrica, the e-Lise Foundation of the Netherlands, and Ireland's 18for0.

Representatives from the supporting organisations of the declaration (Image: Fermi Energia)

The declaration - referred to as the Tallinn Declaration on the Future of SMR Licensing - identifies the key issues that are vital to overcome licensing and regulatory challenges faced in the deployment of SMRs. It sets out nine principles that the signatories support and will promote for SMR licensing. These include a pragmatic approach to SMR licensing, standardisation of SMR designs and regulatory harmonisation. It also calls for a mechanism for international design certification.

Fermi Energia said it believes it is the first such declaration in the world by private companies to move forward with SMR licensing.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News