ORLEN steps up efforts to deploy small nuclear reactors

PKN ORLEN and Synthos Green Energy have signed an investment agreement to set up a joint venture, ORLEN Synthos Green Energy, whose key aim will be to prepare and commercialise small nuclear reactor technology, particularly GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy’s BWRX-300 reactors, in Poland. The project will offer an opportunity to accelerate decarbonisation of the ORLEN Group’s production assets while also helping to improve energy security and drive economic growth at home due to its reliance on local supply chains.

In line with its strategy and ambitions to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, the ORLEN Group invests in low- and zero-emission, stable and innovative power generation capacities.

The new joint venture ORLEN Synthos Green Energy will be set up to commercialise micro and small nuclear reactor technology, with a focus on GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy’s BWRX-300 reactors. The wide array of activities the company is to carry out under the agreement includes promoting the technology, supporting the development of a relevant legal framework, exploring potential reactor sites, implementing joint projects and, ultimately, generating energy and heat using the technology for own, municipal and commercial needs.

‘The European Union’s climate policy forces us to transform our energy sector. The investment agreement for the development of small nuclear reactors signed by PKN ORLEN is part of its plans to modernise the industry. It provides an opportunity for fast, efficient and safe decarbonisation. Nuclear will be the most stable energy source in the future,’ said Jacek Sasin, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of State Assets.

‘Nuclear will be one of the cheapest energy generation sources. We hope the first reactor to be deployed in Poland by 2030. A letter of intent has already been signed to outline the terms on which the first reactors would be supplied to Poland. Investment in micro and small nuclear reactors would support further rapid growth of the ORLEN Group, helping it to significantly reduce carbon emissions. Modular reactors would be an attractive addition to the energy portfolio based on renewable energy sources and natural gas. Accelerated deployment of small nuclear reactors would enable us to better balance our generation asset portfolio and build a low-carbon and innovative energy generation segment. Our priority is to harness the potential of the Polish economy and local suppliers. We consider it vital that modular reactor projects be 50% owned by Polish companies,’ said Daniel Obajtek, President of the PKN ORLEN Management Board.

‘PKN ORLEN and the Synthos Group have a unique business relationship – as chemical and petrochemical companies they have been working together for almost 20 years. We are glad the scope of our collaboration will now also cover innovative nuclear power as another area of critical importance to our companies and the entire Polish economy,’ noted Michał Sołowow, owner of the Synthos Group. ‘The BWRX-300 is an evolution of the technology developed by GE, a US-based group with extensive experience in the field, 30 years’ market presence in Poland and a massive supply chain in the country, comprising over 3,000 companies. Some of them already manufacture components for nuclear power plants abroad. This is a vital element of the entire investment process, offering Poland an opportunity to become a regional SMR manufacturing hub,’ added Mr Sołowow.

‘The BWRX-300 is an innovative, clean energy system that is based on proven technology, and represents an ideal solution to retrofit Poland's large fleet of coal generation,’ said Jon Ball, Executive Vice President GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy.

The ORLEN Group is ideally positioned to commercialise modular reactors in Poland: it has access to a vast array of potential deployment sites, a long track record of implementing major capital projects and extensive experience in the deployment of cutting-edge energy generation technologies. The cooperation with Synthos Green Energy and the selection of BWRX-300 reactors will enable faster and smoother implementation of the nuclear technology at the Group. The reactor is currently the world’s most advanced technology on its way to commercialisation. Breaking ground in this context was a decision by Ontario Power Generation (OPG), one of Canada’s largest power companies, which is set to commence construction of a BWRX-300 reactor in 2022. OPG’s choice of the BWRX-300 technology is also a major catalyst for projects deployed in Poland, because it means the first project in Poland will be a NOAK (Next of a Kind) implementation, with the FOAK (First of a Kind) project deployed in Canada as its reference design. Thus, the projects in Poland will build on Canadian experience in the development, investment process preparation, licensing, construction and operation of a nuclear power plant of the same type.

Building a BWRX-300 reactor takes only about one-third of the time needed to construct a traditional large-scale nuclear power plant. Also, construction costs per MW are roughly 30% lower compared with conventional nuclear projects. A small nuclear reactor with a capacity of ca. 300 MWe is capable of generating sufficient energy to power a city with a population of about 150,000, the size of Zielona Góra. The estimated generation costs per MWh of electricity will ultimately be about 30% lower compared with gas-fired generating sources. What is equally important, a single modular reactor of about 300 MWe can reduce emissions by some 0.3 to 2.0 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, depending on the type of fuel being replaced (for example, hard coal or lignite).

Modular nuclear reactors offer the highest safety standards. The BWRX-300 has passive safety systems that initiate cooling procedures without human intervention and keep it cool for up to seven days. This feature ensures safer operation and a much more flexible approach to reactor siting, enabling reactors to be located, for example, near industrial plants. Less than 5 ha is needed to build a small reactor, which means the National Stadium in Warsaw could accommodate as many as four of them.

Small nuclear reactors might prove an opportunity for Poland’s economy. GE Hitachi estimates that some 50% of the reactor construction expenditure could be incurred in Poland. They would include key plant components such as the turbine and generator, parts of the reactor vessel, and hydraulic systems. This would create new jobs in attractive sectors of the economy. Almost 300 Polish firms have been identified so far that have the potential to become suppliers in the reactor construction supply chain.

Under the agreement they have signed, PKN ORLEN and Synthos Green Energy will each hold 50% of shares and voting rights in the joint venture, giving them joint and equal control of the project. Before the joint venture is formed, it must first obtain clearance from the competent antitrust regulator. The shareholders plan to apply for the clearance by the end of December 2021.