Small-scale reactors, large-scale potential
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Small-scale reactors, large-scale potential

By JP Casey 08 Feb 2021 (Last Updated February 15th, 2021 09:03)

Nuclear power has significant potential, but always courts controversy. New forms of small-scale reactors look to capitalise on this potential, while overcoming these challenges, and are receiving significant attention around the world. From Rolls Royce’s plans for British reactors to private investment in South Africa, we profile small modular reactors around the world.

Small-scale reactors, large-scale potential
SMRs experience few of the logistical challenges and spiralling expenses of large-scale nuclear power, and are small and flexible enough to be deployed in a number of environments. Credit: Martin Vorel

A power source of both great potential and great controversy, nuclear power has long been touted by some as a critical component to reducing the world’s reliance on fossil fuels for its energy needs. Figures from the World Nuclear Association report that over 600 reactors are currently in operation around the world, helping meet the power needs of more than 50 countries and collectively providing around one-tenth of the world’s total electricity.

However, as the world’s energy needs continue to balloon, there are concerns that large-scale nuclear power may not be the answer. High-profile struggles, such as the spiralling construction costs of Hinkley Point C in the UK, have highlighted the challenges associated with large-scale investments in a technology that, compared to fossil fuel facilities, remains relatively untested.

As a result, small modular reactors (SMRs) have emerged as a potential solution for the nuclear industry. These facilities are defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency as those producing less than 300MWe of power. 

Notably, SMRs experience few of the logistical challenges and spiralling expenses of large-scale nuclear power, and are small and flexible enough to be deployed in a number of environments. Yet challenges remain around the world, both financial and technological, as countries and companies look to develop smaller nuclear reactors.

Rolls Royce to build 16 mini nuclear reactors in the UK

One of the most recent SMR projects involves a consortium led by British car giant Rolls Royce, which aims to develop 16 mini nuclear reactors in the UK. The reactors are expected to provide up to 400MW of power, equivalent to around 150 onshore wind turbines, and begin commercial production by 2028. This will be a significant turnaround, considering that all seven of the UK’s nuclear sites currently in operation are set to be decommissioned by 2035, removing one-fifth of the country’s electricity production from the grid.

Rolls Royce has also highlighted a number of economic benefits associated with the project, such as the creation of 40,000 jobs in the SMR supply chain and beyond. In addition, the company estimates a total economic benefit of close to $257bn over the next century, an astronomical figure that would answer many of the criticisms of nuclear power as being economically unviable on a large scale. 

The project has also received government backing, with around $25m going towards the scheme, helping to unite private and public interests within the initiative.

However, the initiative is not without challenges. Much of the scheme’s financial viability comes from the potential for SMRs to be exported around the world, with the global SMR industry set to be valued at around $546bn by 2035. However, the UK’s role in this global industry has come under fire due to Brexit, which has driven a wedge between the UK and its former trading partners.

Additionally, the UK’s commitments to other, more conventional clean energy sources, such as renewables, could impede investment in nuclear power. Figures from Statista show that by 2035, when many of the country’s existing nuclear facilities will come offline, the UK will produce 70GW of power from renewables. This is compared to 13GW from nuclear power, suggesting that even with considerable financial backing, the less well-established nature of nuclear power in the UK means that its impacts on the wider energy mix will be limited.

Rosatom’s 50MW facility in Yakutia

Russian state-owned nuclear energy firm Rosatom announced at the end of 2020 that it had reached an agreement for energy prices for a new SMR facility in the federal district of Yakutia in the east of the country. The plant, which will be constructed in the village of Ust-Yansky, will produce up to 50MW of electricity a year, and help cut the region’s carbon emissions by 10,000 tons per year. 

The project is simply the latest in the state’s efforts to reduce the region’s reliance on fossil fuels, but with the region’s extreme weather making methods such as solar power unreliable, there is optimism that the small nuclear reactor can deliver long-lasting clean power for the area.

Rosatom has also highlighted a number of economic benefits associated with the project, such as a two-fold reduction in the cost of electricity in the region due to the more reliable nature of nuclear power and the creation of 800 local jobs in the construction and operation of the facility.

Yet the project will do little to address two of the main challenges, highlighted by Aleksander Koryakin of energy company Sakhaenergo in an interview with The Northern Forum, facing new energy infrastructure in the region:  a lack of technical expertise and the need for technology catered to the specifics of the Yakutian environment. Yet with state support for the project, there is optimism that, perhaps through sheer financial muscle alone, the project can deliver meaningful impacts for the region.

US approves first small-scale reactor

In September 2020, the US approved its first SMR, a facility developed by NuScale Power. The project has been under review by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission for several years, culminating in a four-year review of the project’s design certification application that involved 115,000 hours of assessment and a half-billion-dollar investment by NuScale.

With all of the regulatory permissions now in place, the company is hopeful that its project will be of benefit to both its own finances, and the US’s nascent SMR industry as a whole, and recent developments at the project support this idea of growth. While the modules originally boasted a capacity of 60MW, they can now produce up to 77MW of power.

NuScale’s project also includes a number of safety features to help minimise the oft-feared impacts of disaster at nuclear facilities. The fact that its plants will consist of a number of small reactors, rather than a single large facility, means that each reactor is contained within a containment vessel measuring 4.6m wide, as opposed to the 40m structures used to house large-scale reactors. 

The smaller housing units can also withstand up to 15 times more pressure, making them safer in an emergency. Additionally, the vessels are submerged in large pools of water, providing an additional layer of defence that is difficult to implement at large-scale facilities.

Yet it remains to be seen if this project will address a key challenge for many nuclear facilities in the US, that of cost. While the US is the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for more than 30% of global nuclear generation of electricity, a number of the country’s power plants have proven unprofitable and have been forced into decommissioning earlier than expected. 

The Nuclear Energy Institute found ten such “prematurely retired” reactors, which took over 9GW of power off the US grid between 2013 and 2020. With the SMR sector still relatively untested in the US, it is unclear if NuScale’s project will be able to deliver the long-term financial benefits so critical to US nuclear power facilities.

South Africa to revive pebble bed modular reactor

First developed in the 1990s, the pebble bed modular reactor is a sub-type of SMR intended for use in South Africa. The reactor is a 110MW facility that is cooled by helium gas, as opposed to water. This enables it to be deployed in countries such as South Africa, where there is relatively limited access to water for cooling, and was described as an “African solution for Africa” by Stratek Business Strategy Consultants CEO Kelvin Kemm in 2020.

Projects such as these are particularly important for South Africa, considering its heavily unbalanced energy mix. In 2016, 69% of the country’s primary energy came from coal, and a further 14% from crude oil. Renewables, gas and nuclear power, the three energy sources receiving most attention and investment around the world, only accounted for 11%, 3%, and 3% respectively. 

Indeed, a government report published in 2019 noted that South Africa is “among the top countries in the world” with regard to uranium reserves, boasting 5.2% of the world’s proven uranium deposits. This suggests that there is significant potential for nuclear developments in the country, provided there is the willingness and investment to develop the relevant technologies.

South African power utility Eskom, however, has struggled to develop the technology. The reactors were put under care and maintenance in 2010, and in January 2020 it announced that it was looking for investors to take control of the project and help it realise its potential. While this could help generate a new lease of life for the project, it is uncertain how effective a system of private investment will be in a country where the energy mix is dominated by a single state-owned enterprise.