SAUDI ARABIA’s adoption of the Vision 2030 strategy, whose goal is to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, was one of the boldest attempts by any Middle East nation to move towards a low-carbon economy, and, with its ambitious plans to build nearly 20 GWe of nuclear capacities in the coming decades. It is clear that nuclear power is to be a major part of bringing Vision 2030 to life. This is certainly an ambitious goal even by the standards of the MENA region, which is currently driving the global development of nuclear power. The very fact that some of the world’s oil-richest countries including Saudi Arabia are pursuing nuclear power, speaks volumes for nuclear power as a clean energy source for countries that want a sustainable. zero-emission, zero-carbon energy option.
Indeed, the Middle East, where countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, to name but a few are in various stages of developing their own national nuclear power programs, is arguably nuclear power’s most exciting frontier and new horizon. Not surprisingly, the Middle East is also where the leading nuclear vendors have set their sights as the most promising region for expansion. Rosatom, the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation, has a claim as good as anyone to sharing and supporting the Middle East’s interest in nuclear power.
Today, Rosatom has its regional office in Dubai and is implementing a string of large-scale projects in MENA countries (such as the NPP construction projects in Egypt and Jordan and uranium supply for the UAE). Yet its history in the region goes back as far the 1950s, when the USSR began investing in MENA countries’ technical and scientific development, setting up some of the first research reactors in the region, helping educate Arab specialists at Russian universities, and conducting knowledge and technology exchange.
Nowadays, with 34 reactors under construction in 12 countries from Finland to China, Rosatom is the world’s No.1 for NPP construction abroad and a major player in the Middle East. Now that the global nuclear industry leadership is changing – and the playing field in the Middle East is no exception – Rosatom’s success is largely rooted in its vast background in the peaceful nuclear industry, spanning more than seven decades and celebrating its 72nd anniversary on Sept. 28 this year.
Historically, innovation has been part and parcel of the Russian nuclear industry’s mission, and its breakthroughs are closely tied to the global nuclear industry’s milestones. From the start, the USSR was determined to be a nuclear pioneer: even before it launched the world’ first commercial nuclear power plant (1954), it was the first country in Eurasia to operate a research nuclear reactor.
In 1964, the USSR launched the first VVER-type (pressurized water) reactor that would over the years become one of the most widely used and reliable reactor technologies around the world; dozens of reactors of this type still in use today all over the world prove.
More industry-defining breakthroughs followed: the world’s first nuclear icebreaker; the world’s unique nuclear desalination facility; fast-neutron reactor (which uses recycled nuclear fuel, resulting in increased efficiency and reduced waste) — these are just a few of the breakthroughs that expanded the horizons of the global peaceful nuclear industry.
Among Rosatom’s most recent innovations are the world’s most powerful fast-neutron reactor (the BN-800) and pioneering the Generation 3+ nuclear reactor technology – VVER-1200 – by launching into commercial operation the world’s first unit of the kind in Russia earlier in 2017. The VVER-1200 is not only the latest design in nuclear reactor technology but also the first successfully implemented Generation 3+ unit in the world, having been entered into commercial operation in February 2017 at the Novovoronezh NPP in central Russia.
The VVER-1200’s enhanced features include its extended operational lifetime (60 years for the reactor unit) and enhanced safety systems that comply with the most stringent international regulations, including the post-Fukushima standards . The project also incorporates additional safety features that were developed as a result of the stress tests conducted at the Novovoronezh NPP in 2012, which emulated more extreme conditions than those that existed at the Fukushima NPP during the incident, and included an imitation of every hypothetical scenario imaginable as a total loss of power for up to 72 hours.
The VVER-1200’s key innovation is the use of both active safety and passive safety systems that make a nuclear power plant hugely resistant to external and internal factors such as earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes. The project’s unique safety innovations include a core catcher and a heat removal system that allows for cooling the reactor core through natural air circulation in the event of a loss of power, and does not require human intervention.
The innovative design has earned praise from international nuclear organizations such as the World Nuclear Operators Association. The same type of reactor will be soon be coming to the Middle East, where it is to be installed at Egypt’s first NPP at El Dabaa NPP.
Rosatom is open to bringing its innovations to other countries in the Middle East, where it has a history of technical, scientific and cultural cooperation. Its accumulated expertise and more than 70-year experience in all aspects of peaceful nuclear applications mean it is well-equipped to help the region’s countries such as Saudi Arabia take their nuclear power programs to a new level of technical and innovative achievement. The intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear power signed by Saudi Arabia and Russia in 2015 opens up a wealth of opportunities for mutually beneficial and innovation-driving cooperation.
— The writer is Director, ROSATOM Middle East and North Africa