Towards a different future: Small Modular Reactors - Yazgı Nur Akın

An impression of the Rolls Royce’s compact nuclear power station

Most of the countries try to meet the growing population’s energy demand with better use of energy sources, but some strategic changes in the energy mix and the new energy sources’ applications should have remained on the list. As a carbon-free energy source, nuclear power has a significant share of worldwide electricity generation. In terms of meeting energy demand; financial advantages in the long-term; quantity and quality of the human capital during the infrastructure phases; and positive contributions to the climate change and energy security, nuclear power is evaluated as a necessity in the energy mix of the countries. Today, there are about 450 nuclear power reactors in operation while the construction of 53 reactors is continuing. However, nuclear power industry has decided to change its conventional methods with the help of advanced Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). The SMRs are recognized as one of the critical parts of the countries which have some goals to develop safer, cleaner, and more affordable nuclear power industry. The SMRs have a variety in terms of size, technology, and deployment, and they offer several advantages to the countries and investors. Being “small” and “modular” brings some significant benefits, such as less commissioning time.

When we make a basic comparison between the SMRs and large conventional reactor designs, it is seen that the SMRs are modular to be constructed in a factory in easier and faster ways. Moreover, they are designed to be ready for transportation from the factory to the nuclear power plant (NPP) site by boat, truck, or railway. It offers a big opportunity to the manufacturers, transporter companies, and construction site staff. The SMRs have several design characteristics, and this feature gives the advantage to diversify them quickly. Today, there are around 50 SMR designs in more than ten countries either for energy supply or for providing various industrial demands. These miniature reactors’ capacity can be in a range between a couple of megawatts and hundreds of megawatts in contrast to the larger conventional ones that generate more than 700 MW(e). However, the SMRs mostly produce less than 300 MW(e). That is the main reason why they are called “small.”

From the safety perspective, by using advanced fuels and developed material utilization, the risk of a nuclear accident will be minimized, so the reactors will be less affected when an accident occurs with possible radioactive contamination.

Beyond these, economics and financing of the SMRs emerge as another underlying reason for why we should consider them. Technically speaking, the NPPs’ construction and operation costs are based on how many similar units are likely to be built. The fundamental reason is that when a comparable unit is delivered several times, the “economy of multiples” is happened. Moreover, the economy of multiples is directly related to mass production, which is the case for the SMRs. The plant size, the number of units to be built, the site location, vessel cost, turbine cost, and working hours determine the cost. However, by putting the SMRs into operation, many companies will achieve economies of scale regarding the production and maintenance at a lower cost per megawatt. In brief, an advanced SMR design will result in fewer components and overnight costs, and its modularity will actualize the standardization of components and design while it is setting up a significant substructure for the economies of mass production. Just three days before, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has announced that a three-year Coordinated Research Project which focuses on the economics of SMRs. The project participants will do market research and competitive landscape analysis while they are doing the planning, forecasting, and financial valuation.

In general, the nuclear industry faces some main nuclear-specific risk factors such as unstable public support (sometimes contrary public acceptance), risks from the policy and regulatory body, the uncertain cost of decommissioning, and radioactive waste. All these, naturally, put some pressure on the investors even if nuclear energy is known as advanced and clean technology. But on the bright side, they are designed for a high level of safety in the event of a malfunction. It means the small and modular size and more passive safety features contribute to the countries that have smaller grids and with less experience of nuclear power like Turkey. But, this is incompatible for the large NPPs.

In 2018, the IAEA organized an advisory group as known as Technical Working Group on Small and Medium-Sized or Modular Reactors to discuss the future of SMRs. In addition to these efforts, in 2019, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has authorized an early site permit to Tennessee Valley Authority for the possible construction of SMRs; and Saskatchewan and New Brunswick agreed to promote the SMRs and elaborate the economic potential of Canada. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that American company Nuscale became the pioneer of the SMR studies when it took first and only design certification review by a regulatory body-the NRC. Moreover, in March 2020, Rolls-Royce and EUAS International ICC have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to carry out a study to evaluate both the technical, economic and legal applicability; and also the possibility of joint production of the SMRs. That is one of the big signs of progress Turkey achieved.

As it is seen, SMR is a new and high-level topic. Still, at the same time, it is an emerging technology that will play an incredible role in the nuclear power industry and meeting increasing global energy demands with cleaner and safer ways. We will see what will happen in the coming years that are shaped by these reactors. Who knows, maybe in the future, all cities will have their SMRs…

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