Argentina developing small, modular reactors that promise better safety
When the tsunami in Japan generated the Fukushima nuclear crisis in 2011, Argentina not only confirmed its decision to increase the share of atomic energy from from 6% to 15% of its energy mix, but started building the prototype Central Argentina Modular Element (CAREM) reactor, the first Latin American reactor design, with the aim of becoming by 2020 one of the stars of the next generation of reactors.
The CAREM concept was first introduced in 1984 as one of the pioneering proposals for 300 MW reactors with the possibility of forming scaled clusters. Furthermore, the design developed by the National Commission of Atomic Energy (CNEA) and the signed off by Applied Research (INVAP) is part of what the nuclear community calls G3+ (generation three plus): it substitutes external subsystems such as pressurizing and water pumps for cooling by natural systems that operate within the reactor vessel. Thus, the design decreases the amount of sensitive components and contact with the outside.
Furthermore, an innovative incorporated hydraulic safety system eliminates the dependency on external energy sources and works passively. For any imbalance in the reactor, graphite rods fall by gravity, thus absorbing excess neutrons and causing a safe shutdown (or SCRAM) in two seconds. For 36 hours the plant would not require external help. ”A tsunami would never have been a problem” ensures the CNEA with an eye to Fukushima.
At least as far as technology is concerned, the Argentine reactor is not without competition. ”It was one of 16 selected from 100 new designs by the Generation IV International Forum as being viable before 2020″ notes Michael Schlamp, project coordinator for CAREM 25, such as prototype reactor has been christened.
The best part is that small G3+ reactors appear to be one of the futures of the nuclear industry. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that by 2030 there will be at least 43 of these plants in operation worldwide and 96 optimistically. A document from the US Department of Energy (DOE) prepared by the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago does not hesitate to recommend them as one possibility for the US to return to being competitive in reactor design. In the meantime, suppliers like Russia and France’s Areva have decided to join the race.
The reason? Nuclear power is the only way that can guarantee the energy supply by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Moreover, such modular plants are not only a more secure, proven technology but hey require much less capital — which is essential for a capital-intensive industry vulnerable to financial costs, says the document signed in June of last year in Chicago.
In addition, they are best suited to serve markets with small power grids or isolated geographic areas, which is common in emerging markets where energy demand is growing immensely.
Juan can be reached at juan.dalmasso(at)gmail.com