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Small, Modular and Nuclear....The future of Clean Energy?

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  • Mar 18, 2021

The future of clean energy might be small, modular, and nuclear. What are Small Modular Reactors and why is the nuclear power industry excited about them?

In addition to an increased interest from China, India, and Russia, the U.S., U.K., and Canada, have signalled growing support for Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) in the closing weeks of 2020. Canada has also launched a 27-point SMR national action plan to tap into SMR technologies valued at USD 4.57 Billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $300 billion a year by 2040. 

 SMR technologies are valued at USD 4.57 Billion in 2019, and is projected to reach $300 billion a year by 2040. 

But what exactly is “small” in terms of nuclear energy?

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Small yet Powerful

As per the definition by the World Nuclear Association (WNA), SMRs can produce electricity of up to 300 MWe equivalent or less, using compact and module factory fabrications, economical ways of series production and shorter construction time compared to traditional reactors. Making reactors smaller is hardly a novel idea, with the first civilian SMR commissioned back in 1955 in Minnesota.

Oregon-based NuScale’s SMR developed an SMR with the help of the US Departments of Energy for $900m (£685m) funding for the development of SMR technology. With a generating capacity of 50 megawatts which offers a range of over 1,000 megawatts (MW). NuScale is currently working on its first SMR scheduled to be operational by 2029. By 2030, they plan to commission 11 reactors.

That means if a utility combines 12 SMRs at a single site, it would produce 600 MW of electricity that is enough to power 540,000 homes or a midsize city. 

What makes SMRs attractive?

The global interest in small and medium-sized or modular reactors is quite palpable, as for many economies it means flexible power generation which could replace traditional fossil fuel-fired power plants. SMRs are affordable due to reduced construction cost as the parts are modular and produced in factories and can be shipped to site locations.

SMRS are quicker to build and with drastically lower up-front costs.

The compactness makes it possible to be deployed in areas that cannot support large reactors, or in remote areas with limited water.

The modular nature makes SMRs flexible; they may be scaled up and down to meet the requirements. They may therefore be used to repower retiring nuclear plants or event complement existing power generation at a plant.

NuScale engineers vouch SMRs are safer as they eliminate pumps, valves, and other moving parts making it virtually impervious to meltdowns. All these reasons make SMRs attractive. It also makes us wonder why it has not become a widespread phenomenon, especially in Europe.

SMRs in Europe

Nuclear energy has gotten a bad rap since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Following Fukushima, Europe has been on the path of nuclear phase-out, shutting down large reactors. SMRs though are offering a scope to produce low carbon electricity without the hazards of conventional nuclear plants.

SMRs are looking for a greater play in Europe with NuwardTM (a consortium of French companies including EDF), and with the establishment of ELSMOR (towards European Licensing of Small Modular Reactors) set up to create ways for the European stakeholders to assess and verify the safety of light water small modular reactors (LW-SMR) tailored for European needs. 

The Czech Republic, Romania and Poland are also making strides ahead. Poland, for instance, plans to add six new plants of 6GW and 9GW  capacity by 2045; this includes SMRs and large reactors. SMRs could also become a source of energy for low-carbon hydrogen production

Rolls-Royce has been working with Fermi Energia to invest in Estonia’s SMRs and the UK Government to facilitate low-carbon electricity. Vattenfall is also taking part in Estonian pilot studies for SMRs.

The UKSMR consortium comprising of Assystem, Atkins, BAM Nuttall, Jacobs, Laing O’Rourke, National Nuclear Laboratory, Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, Rolls-Royce, and TWI plans to build a fleet of factory-built nuclear power plants. These power plants would have a capacity of 440MW each and would be operational within ten years. The UK government plans to invest up to £385 million in an Advanced Nuclear Fund (ANF) with £215 million earmarked for SMRs. As of now, Russia is the only country in the European region operating an SMR - Lomonosov - also known as the floating nuclear plant. 

Is this the Future of Clean Energy?

In the spring of 2020, IAEA started a two-year regional project that could accelerate SMR innovation in Europe and Central Asia. IAEA’s aims to assist countries to attain their clean energy goals and climate targets with the help of SMRs. This project has 25 countries involved, and the Agency predicts this decade to be the most crucial for SMR technological innovation and implementation.

However, what is the future of SMRs as the price of renewables continues to plummet? Is it possible to achieve net-zero emissions with SMRs? Will SMRs finally allow the nuclear industry to move past Chernobyl and Fukushima?

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