For decades, many countries have maintained a love-hate relationship with nuclear energy, with the sector regarded as the black sheep of the alternative energy industry thanks to poor public perception, a series of high-profile disasters such as Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Miles Island as well as massive cost-overruns by nuclear projects. Currently, 440 nuclear reactors operate globally, providing ~10% of the world’s electricity, down from 15 percent at nuclear power’s peak in 1996. In the United States, 93 nuclear reactors generate ~20 percent of the country’s electricity supply.
But Russia’s war in Ukraine and the need for energy security are now forcing a major realignment of energy systems on a global scale, with countries that were formerly strongly opposed to nuclear power such as Germany and Japan now seriously considering incorporating more nuclear energy in their energy mix. Further, the global energy transition is in full swing, and many experts are coming to the realization that the world needs more nuclear power to meet our climate goals. Indeed, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world needs to double the annual rate of nuclear capacity additions in order to reach the 2050 net-zero target. Further, nuclear plants can be paired up with renewable energy projects to act as baseload power thanks to nuclear power possessing the highest capacity factor of any energy source: nuclear plants produce at maximum power more than 93 percent of the time compared to 57 percent for natural gas and 25 percent for solar energy.
Unfortunately, it’s going to be incredibly hard to achieve that milestone thanks to the harsh reality of nuclear power projects. Consider that it not only takes an average of eight years to build a nuclear power plant, but also the mean time between the decision and the commissioning typically ranges from 10 to 19 years. Additionally, major commercial hurdles, primarily the large upfront capital cost and huge cost overruns (nuclear plants have the greatest frequency of cost overruns of all utility-scale power projects), make this an even more onerous endeavor.
Enter small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs).
SMRs are advanced nuclear reactors with power capacities that range from 50-300 MW(e) per unit, compared to 700+ MW(e) per unit for traditional nuclear power reactors. Their biggest attributes are:
- Modular – this makes it possible for SMR systems and components to be factory-assembled and transported as a unit to a location for installation.
- Small – SMRs are physically a fraction of the size of a conventional nuclear power reactor.
Given their smaller footprint, SMRs can be sited on locations not suitable for larger nuclear power plants, such as retired coal plants. Prefabricated SMR units can be manufactured, shipped and then installed on site, making them more affordable to build than large power reactors. Additionally, SMRs offer significant savings in cost and construction time, and can also be deployed incrementally to match increasing power demand. Another key advantage: SMRs have reduced fuel requirements, and can be refueled every 3 to 7 years compared to between 1 and 2 years for conventional nuclear plants. Indeed, some SMRs are designed to operate for up to 30 years without refueling.
Source: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
Source: Geopolitical Intelligence Services AG
Encouraging SMR Development
Scores of governments, including the U.S. government, have begun incentivizing SMRs by making them more attractive for lenders and utilities.
“You simply must have some form of reliable, baseload power because you can’t get there with assets that operate (part of) the time. A nuclear power plant is more costly upfront, but it is an asset that operates for 80 years. If you compare that to wind and solar, they generally have 20-year lifetimes and batteries of around eight years. If you compare renewables and batteries to nuclear, nuclear stacks up very, very well,” Jeff Merrifield, partner, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, and a former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner, said during a recent nuclear energy virtual press conference hosted by the United States Energy Association. Merrifield pointed to West Virginia, Idaho, Wyoming, as some of the states where SMRs would be suitable, noting that they all lack nuclear plants but have enacted legislation that allows small modular reactors to develop.
Back in 2020, the U.S. Department of Commerce launched a Small Modular Reactor Working Group that looks to expedite SMR deployment in European markets in a bid to position U.S. companies to succeed in those markets. Meanwhile, Ghana and Kenya are also looking to develop SMRs to expand their power generation capacities.
But the private sector is just as active in the SMR arena.
TerraPower and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy launched the Natrium project in 2020 to design SMRs that they hope to commercialize by 2030. The partners are currently testing the technology, along with Berkshire Hathaway’s PacifiCorp. The Natrium reactors are intended to act as power backup for wind and solar projects.
NuScale, a subsidiary of American multinational engineering and construction firm Fluor, has lined up plans to start building SMRs in Idaho starting 2026. The company’s designs will combine 12 modules to generate 924-megawatts, equivalent to the output of a large nuclear plant.
And now the million-dollar question: are SMRs the future of nuclear power?
You will notice that a major SMR wave hit around 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic but well before Russia invaded Ukraine. It’s therefore possible that the ongoing global energy crisis, climate concerns, and the much smaller footprint by SMRs compared to traditional reactors will persuade the public that this is the way to go.
However, studies like these that paint SMRs in a bad light have the potential to throw a spanner in the works and increase public resistance if proven to be accurate:
“Our results show that most small modular reactor designs will actually increase the volume of nuclear waste in need of management and disposal, by factors of 2 to 30 for the reactors in our case study. These findings stand in sharp contrast to the cost and waste reduction benefits that advocates have claimed for advanced nuclear technologies,” said study lead author Lindsay Krall, a former MacArthur Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). The study found that one of their key attractions--small size--is also their major Achilles heel because SMRs experience more neutron leakage than conventional reactors, which in turn affects the amount and composition of their waste streams. The study also discovered that spent nuclear fuel from SMRs will be discharged in greater volumes per unit of energy produced and can be far more complex compared to waste from conventional reactors.
By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com
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