Nuclear power plants have historically been associated with higher upfront costs than coal or gas power as their designs are more complex and must adhere to strict safety standards. The radioactive waste created by nuclear power generation also needs to be stored securely for thousands of years or risk harming the surrounding environment. The technology’s false association with nuclear weapons has also contributed to the negative perception of nuclear amongst the public and policy-makers.
Despite these factors, the potential of nuclear power was too great to ignore and decades ago, nuclear power was expected to take on a significant role in our clean energy future, promising efficient electricity generation with none of the emissions of traditional fossil fuels. However, several infamous nuclear events turned public perception around and set nuclear energy adoption back for decades.
Today, as the world works towards its 2050 net zero emissions targets, nuclear power is still expected to play a critical part in this transition. Yet, nuclear power plant construction is nowhere near the rate needed to meet our climate ambitions. According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), commissioning and building a nuclear power plant could take up to two decades, and this is without considering the large upfront costs and technical complexity associated with nuclear plants.
A simpler, smaller, and more versatile version of traditional nuclear plants, however, could categorically address these issues and accelerate the deployment of nuclear in our energy system. This is where Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are coming in as an interesting solution to our traditional nuclear problem.
SMR’s Nuclear Potential
Despite the negative sentiment against it, nuclear energy could still play a useful part in addressing our energy and climate challenges. Nuclear power emits 40 times less CO2 than coal, and 4 times less CO2 than solar power. As opposed to intermittent renewables like wind, solar and some hydro power facilities, nuclear provides constant, controllable energy and can adapt its output according to energy demand. SMRs are now creating a path to net zero that still taps into nuclear’s benefits while addressing safety and cost concerns and offering solutions to other challenges of the energy trilemma.
Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are advanced nuclear reactors designed to be smaller and produce around one-third, or up to 300 MW, of the power generating capacity of traditional nuclear reactors. Same as traditional reactors, SMRs use nuclear fission to release large amounts of energy in the form of heat, and harness that thermal energy to generate electrical power.
Unlike traditional nuclear plants, SMRs are smaller in size and are designed to be modular. This allows them to be manufactured offsite and then shipped to be installed on-site. Their size and modularity also allow them to be deployed in locations not suitable for larger nuclear power plants. Traditionally, this requires customised designs and on-site construction based on the location of the plant – factors which result in high upfront costs and significantly longer construction times.
Compared to traditional reactors, SMRs designs are simpler, produce lower amounts of energy and power smaller areas. These characteristics make SMRs inherently safer than traditional reactors. On top of this, SMRs safety mechanisms rely on passive systems such as natural circulation, convection, gravity, and self-pressurisation, meaning no human intervention or external power is needed to shut down SMR systems.
A Snapshot of SMRs Progress around the World
Although the benefits of SMRs are evident, their commercial viability still needs to be proven in practice. Their cost effectiveness largely stems from economies of scale, so there needs to be a secure market and/or upfront investments for SMRs before they can be manufactured on a larger scale.
Critics of nuclear power will definitely hold any nuclear technologies to stringent standards, which means regulations and requirements in SMRs systems will need to be developed and standardised to ensure the technology’s safety and assuage public fears around nuclear energy.
That said, the potential of SMRs technology is not being ignored. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there are four SMRs currently under construction in Argentina, China, and Russia, with only one operating prototype in the world – a floating nuclear power plant that began operating at full capacity in May 2020.
A tremendous amount of research and development will need to be done, in determining their economic competitiveness and commercial viability
Elsewhere, SMRs are not expected to hit the commercial market before 2030. A tremendous amount of research and development will need to be done, especially in determining their economic competitiveness and commercial viability once they are deployed at scale. Most recently, the United States government announced it would partially fund the development of two SMRs demonstration models with a total provision of USD160 million to TerraPower and X-energy. These projects will look to enhance safety features of SMRs as well as make them affordable to construct and operate.
In the UK, since 2016, around £460 million of public funds have been directed towards developing the next generation of SMRs technologies and building the capabilities to assess and license SMRs technologies. This includes an investment of £215 million to accelerate a Rolls Royce concept design and a co-invested low cost nuclear (LCN) program which aims to see the commercial deployment of a fleet of SMRs by the 2030s. The LCN program is expected to return £52 billion of value to the UK economy by 2050 and potentially generate a £250 billion export market with up to 40,000 high-value jobs. If successful, small nuclear reactors units could be deployed in the UK by the early 2030s.
In Southeast Asia, while nuclear energy does not have a large presence, the region’s developing economies are increasingly interested in the possibilities of nuclear power generation. In 2014, Indonesia announced a plan to build a small 10 MW experimental High Temperature Reactor (HTR).
A Promising Prospect with Ways to Go
The case for and against Small Modular Reactors is a complex one. While SMRs have the potential to enable and accelerate our clean energy transition, there is a long way to go in setting up the energy ecosystem to readily integrate small-scale nuclear power generation. Part of the challenges include attracting investments, setting up regulations, converting opponents of nuclear power to determining its commercial viability. Even in its infancy, there is no doubt that green technologies like this will be crucial to the success of our global net zero targets.