Small Modular Reactors: The Next Big Thing in Nuclear Energy
9 November 2022
The nuclear energy industry has received significant bad press following incidents like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and most recently, Fukushima. Strong anti-nuclear energy lobbies have developed across the world from India to Germany to the USA and Japan. Small Modular Reactors, which have various potential advantages over traditional reactors, could be a golden bullet for the nuclear industry and simultaneously for the climate change movement.
As states, big and small, face up to the challenge of tackling climate change, it is imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt sustainable sources of energy. Nuclear Power presently generates more than 4% of the global primary energy mix and plays an especially significant role in providing baseload electricity to different countries. While the nuclear industry has gone through ebbs and flows, it remains a fact that nuclear energy could be the most potent and ‘cleanest source’ of energy available today as we try to meet the unorthodox need for energy with the least amount of pollution.
The cost, timeframe, waste disposal challenges and most pertinently a misinformed fear of the safety threat posed by nuclear reactors have been the general cause for the downturn in the nuclear industry, particularly post Fukushima 2011. In this case, Small Modular Reactors (SMR) could be the ‘clean energy’ solution that addresses many of the traditional concerns with respect to the nuclear energy industry. SMRs have the potential to provide a number of states, rich and poor, developed and developing, with cost effective as well as scalable power for multiple applications.
Small Modular Reactors: Benefits and Implications
Small Modular Reactors (SMR) are advanced nuclear reactors with a power capacity generally of over 300MW(e) per unit. They are physically smaller in size than a conventional nuclear reactor. They are compact in nature and easy to mass manufacture and assemble in factories. SMRs are far more mobile compared to traditional nuclear reactors and can be transported to any given location for installation. Like traditional reactors, SMRs also harnesses nuclear fission to produce energy.
There are numerous types and designs of the SMRs which are being developed across the world. However, in general, some of the major advantages of SMRs over traditional reactors are:
a) Affordable pricing: It is believed that mature SMR technologies would be far more affordable than existing nuclear energy standards thanks to much lower production costs than traditional reactors.
b) Compact structure: Given their relatively smaller size and compact structure, SMRs can be placed at sites where building large nuclear plants would not be feasible. Prefabricated units can be manufactured and sent to assemble in the given location.
c) Infrastructure: SMRs could be a game changer in areas with weak energy infrastructure. Across the world, rural areas are plagued with limited grid coverage. Setting up large power plants without adequate infrastructure to distribute the generated capacity, or conversely, setting up large plants in areas with limited demand both result in wastage and a lack of efficiency. SMRs on the other hand, could be deployed into an existing grid or remotely off-grid because of their reduced electrical output, providing low-carbon power for industry and the people in places lacking adequate lines of transmission and grid capacity.
SMR’s across the world
Nuclear energy in any form comes under the realm of high technology and as such it is not a surprise that the R&D into SMRs are also mostly being undertaken by the world’s leading nuclear powers. The US Department of Energy has invested around USD 217 million in the research of Nuscale’s SMR Projects. Meanwhile, Russia has already launched the Akademik Lomonosov, its floating SMR model, an idea which China is seeking to follow. Elsewhere, three Canadian provinces, Ontario, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan have signed a memorandum for the development of modular reactors. Rolls-Royce in the UK has also been working on the development of modular reactors.
In 2016, China initiated a plan for building their own state-funded floating reactors. China has been achieving several breakthroughs with respect to SMRs and is slated to emerge as a leading player in the global market. It has initiated the setting up of Linglong One, which has been hailed as the world’s first commercial SMR. The core module of this reactor was deployed in August 2023. It has committed to spend around USD 440 billion on building new nuclear power plants including SMRs by 2035.
The developing world is increasingly looking to China as a source for small modular reactors which could help them address their energy security challenges and also to diversify their energy structure. African countries like Ghana are interested in SMRs not only for energy production but also since they can be used for desalination of water. China has experience in setting up nuclear installations both at home and abroad. For states in the developing world, the well-structured industrial chain operated by the China National Nuclear Cooperation (providing a one-stop solution from installation to spent fuel management), is highly attractive.
SMRs: The Future
As SMR technologies mature around the world, the demand for such systems is only going to go up. While other renewable sources of energy have their own industry and activists’ lobbies, as well as their own unique advantages and disadvantages, the nuclear energy industry has suffered substantially in the post-Fukushima era. The one significant advantage of nuclear energy over all other renewables is that it is capable of producing all-year, baseload energy generation not dependent on seasons or climatic conditions and intermittent outages. Hence, to actualize the maximum shift away from fossil fuels as a baseload energy generator, nuclear energy is essential.
The nuclear energy sector has received significant bad press due to accidents such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, or natural disasters mingling with human error in the case of Fukushima. There has been strong anti-nuclear energy lobbying across the world from India to Germany to the USA to Japan which have halted or delayed new projects or required significant government intervention to settle.
As opposed to the establishment of large-scale nuclear plants, SMRs can be installed in existing sites itself or tailored to meet the demands of a small city or region as required. To achieve sustainable development goals and quench the thirst for clean energy, SMRs provide a viable alternative. Due to inherent characteristics such as low pressure and power, SMR’s are safer compared to conventional nuclear reactors. In this light, SMRs could be a golden bullet for the nuclear industry and simultaneously for the climate change movement.
Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.
Ishita is a resident Nuclear Policy Fellow at Trivium. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the School of Liberal Arts at the Alliance University, Bengaluru. Her doctoral research focuses on India’s nuclear policy and strategy across changing times, with a specific focus on India’s approach to nuclear multilateralism.