What do SMRs mean for the European nuclear industry?

Thomas Thor summarises which SMR (Small Modular Reactors) designs are being developed or marketed in Europe, as well as regional hotspots and various other affecting topics that could influence the success of SMRs.

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Small Modular Reactors are the upcoming type of nuclear fission reactors. Not only are SMR’s smaller than conventional reactors, they are compact enough to be transported by truck or rail and increase containment efficiency. Developers say that if enough are built in the same factory, costs per unit of energy output can be driven down well below those of larger plants.

There are a number of SMR regional hotspots currently. The countries that are currently proving the most successful in the development of SMRs are, as expected, those with the more established nuclear energy industries. Russia already operates two small reactors to power a desalination plant on the Black Sea coast.

The UK recently held a competition to define the most effective SMR design and pledged investment of £250million worth of R&D into the innovation. Small modular reactors could absolutely assist the UK in meeting its commitment to low-carbon generation. The UK’s grid capacity will need to double from 80GW to 160 GW as transport becomes more and more electricity-powered. Meeting this demand with a clean solution, will demand at least 15GW – 75GW of nuclear power. Opposition to nuclear power in Britain has fallen since 2005, even with the Fukushima accident taking place during this time.

The US has been backing the R&D of Small Modular Reactors for a number of years. In 2007, the DOE established its Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, with a focus on high-potential, high-impact, micro-reactor technologies. In 2015, The US DOE also released a Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) initiative to support the development of nuclear technology and design, which would include the R&D of smaller modular reactors.

However, the most advanced SMR project is located in China. Chinergy has begun the construction of the 210 MWe HTR-PM, which is the follow-up design to the several reactors in the 1960s and 1980s.

So why is the world going mad about SMRs? There are a number of contributing factors to the increased interest in these innovations.

Larger power reactors induce a significantly high capital cost in comparison to smaller modular reactors, which contributes heavily to the intrigue surrounding smaller units. SMRs are also seen as a more manageable investment than larger reactors, as seen with the Finnish Olkiluoto nuclear project, whose opening has been further delayed from 2018 to 2020. Most SMRs are also designed for an increased level of safety in the event of a malfunction.

In terms of job opportunities, the UK has the capability to produce most if not all of the SMR modules, creating high quality jobs in manufacturing and the supply chain, which has the potential to lead to a global export potential. However, several SMR developers are claiming that their designs will require fewer staff members to run the reactors because of the increased inherent and passive safety systems. Some reactors, such as the Toshiba 4S, are reportedly designed to run with little supervision.

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