Ep 237: Stefano Monti - Head, Nuclear Power Technology Development, IAEA
Stefano enters the nuclear industry (0:07)
0:07-5:24 (Stefano explains how he first got involved with the nuclear industry and his first job after university.)
Q. Where did you get your nuclear experience?
A. Stefano Monti developed his interest for nuclear while a high school student in the 1970s. At the time, Italy was engaged in the nuclear sector and had four power plants in operation. Italy also had a broad research and development (R&D) program, including focus on advanced technologies, and planned to produce 20 gigawatts of electricity from nuclear power. Stefano was attracted to the fact that the nuclear industry was always put in a European or global context, emphasizing international work. Stefano graduated from university in 1982 and then worked for Italy’s largest industrial nuclear company, which focused on developing and designing advanced reactors. Stefano was responsible for the shielding and neutronic design of the material test reactor with a fast neutron spectrum.
Fast reactors (5:25)
5:25-14:25 (Stefano discusses fast reactors, focusing on their coolants and the current fast reactors in operation.)
Q. Let’s talk about fast reactors. What coolant were you working with?
A. In fast reactors, neutrons are moving at faster speeds, and therefore behave differently in the reactor. Water can not be used to bring them to the thermal spectrum, so a different coolant must be used instead. Stefano was working on sodium-cooled fast reactors at the time. Sodium has been used for a while because the physics of sodium cooling is very well known and is less challenging than using other coolants. There are many characteristics to consider when choosing a coolant, the main one being how the neutrons interact with it. Sodium is a good coolant for fast reactors because they only slow neutrons slightly.
There are two industrial sodium cooled fast reactors in operation currently in Russia. Russia has maintained expertise and R&D activity in fast reactor technology. The BN-600, which produces 600 megawatts, has been in operation for 35 years. The BN-800 produces 840 megawatts of electric power. Russia has also developed an alternative fast reactor technology: heavy metal liquid technology. It is a eutectic system, meaning it uses a combination of two different elements to lower the melting point. But there are also downsides; using bismuth produces polonium through irradiation, which emits alpha particles. This requires more safety precautions. However, lead bismuth fast reactors can be used to power submarines.
Italy’s nuclear referendum (14:26)
14:26-20:46 (Stefano explains how Chernobyl occurred during his fast reactor research and how the accident led to the end of Italy’s nuclear program.)
Q. Where did you career progress after working on fast reactors?
A. In 1986, Stefano’s work on the material test for the test reactor was almost complete. However, Chernobyl happened and Italy decided to have a referendum to decide whether to continue with nuclear or not. The Italians where recommended to avoid particular vegetables that had been grown in parts of the country due to contamination from the accident. The politicians recognized that livelihoods of Italian citizens had been impacted and decided to allow the people to have a say in the continuation of nuclear power in the country. The continuation of nuclear also meant the potential for more infrastructure, something the Italian people may not have necessarily wanted when considering the geography of the country.
Italy’s love for complex science (20:47)
20:47-25:37 (Stefano discusses how despite the ended nuclear program, Italy still produces many strong nuclear PhD students.)
Q. Is there a chance Italy may ever go back to nuclear power?
A. Stefano does not foresee a return to nuclear in Italy’s future, despite the number of nuclear PhD students in Italy. This may be because nuclear science is part of Italy’s history. Italy also has a positive and strong attitude towards taking on complex science problems. The possibilities associated with nuclear science foster a creative field that many people are attracted to.
Sharing advanced reactor knowledge (25:38)
25:38-29:52 end of video 1
Q. Do you get particular insight into this because of your job now?
A. Stefano sees his ability to interact with 171 countries as one of the benefits of working for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). His job as the Head of Nuclear Power Technology Development gives him a broad perspective of what is happening around the world. Stefano is responsible for a program devoted to advanced reactor and nonelectrical applications for nuclear power. One of his main missions is to create a space for the exchange of information. This means the IAEA brings together stakeholders of states participating in advanced reactor technology. One tool they use is the advanced reactor technology information system. This collects detailed information of the Generation 4 reactors, which are the designs for advanced reactors that are not yet in operation, and some Generation 3 reactors that may be in operation. The information system also includes details of the small modular reactors.
Nonelectrical applications: hydrogen production and cogeneration (0:05)
0:05-6:35 beginning of video 2
Q. What are some of the nonelectrical applications of power reactors?
A. Hydrogen production is one nonelectrical application. It can be used to carry energy to create clean transportation. Hydrogen is already produced, but with the byproduct of CO2. Nuclear reactors can be used to extract hydrogen from water using very high temperature reactors or using lower temperature reactors to extract hydrogen from other chemicals.
Cogeneration is another example of a nonelectrical application of power reactors. This is when a reactor is used to generate steam to drive a turbine and the associated heat is used for city heating. China is currently developing a small modular reactor for this purpose. Already 70 nuclear power plants operate cogeneration. However, there are economic considerations that limit cogeneration, such as the need to be competitive with the existing gas or coal plants. Despite the economic considerations, climate change makes nuclear power plant cogeneration a better option because they generate heat without emitting CO2.
Economies of series, not scale (6:36)
6:36-11:13 (Stefano explains why nuclear is not more competitive and discusses how economies of series will decrease SMR cost.)
Q. Why is nuclear not more competitive?
A. The cost structure of nuclear is different to those of fossil fuels. The kilowatt hour is mostly affected by the high investment cost, which makes up between 70 and 80 percent of the total cost. The financial system also manages them differently, meaning there are questions about how to finance nuclear power as building a plant can cost 10 to 20 billion dollars.
Reducing the size of the reactor will decrease the costs associated with building. However, it may not decrease the cost of nuclear produced electricity because larger plants reduce the cost per kilowatt because of economies of scale. However, small modular reactors (SMRs) realize economies of series, which reduce cost and time of construction. This increased manufacturing rate will decrease overall reactor cost.
Stefano’s nuclear future (11:14)
11:14-19:40 (Stefano gives his vision of the future of nuclear.)
Q. What do you see for the future of nuclear energy?
A. Stefano states the expectation for the short or medium term is the have a significant deployment of Generation 3 or higher reactors. The success of new builds depends on the policy and region of the world, however. China and India are expected to deploy these reactors and Russia is expected to see continued development and deployment of advanced reactors. Stefano also foresees SMRs being available within the next 10 to 20 years. SMRs can be used alongside renewables to make up for lost electricity generation during times when renewables can not produce power, such as cloudy or dark days. Stefano also expects newcomer countries to adopt nuclear. States that do not need a high capacity to support their population could adopt SMRs. Because SMRs are yet to be realized, however, Stefano foresees first adoption to take place in more developed countries, such as China. For Europe, Stefano predicts the adoption of nuclear in the hybrid energy system to work alongside renewables and provide nonelectrical applications for industry.