• 30 Nov - 2 Dec 2021
  • Paris-Nord Villepinte

Big role ahead for small modular reactors


Widespread research into small modular reactors (SMRs) suggests that this approach to safe, transportable and affordable nuclear power has a strong future.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports that there are “about 50 SMR designs and concepts” in various stages of development worldwide. Four – in Argentina, China and Russia – are in “advanced stages of construction” but, equally major, the IAEA says countries that are newcomers to nuclear energy are also undertaking research and development (R&D) on SMRs.

The attraction is obvious. As the IAEA puts it, these reactors have “enhanced safety performance through inherent and passive safety features, offer better upfront capital cost affordability and are suitable for cogeneration and non-electric applications”.

SMRs are not new: the smallest land-based reactors still in operation – four EGP-6 reactors, producing 12 MWe each – were commissioned in 1974-76 at Russia’s Bilibino nuclear power plant (NPP). They are expected to be decommissioned by the end of 2020 as the floating NPP, the Akademik Lomonosov, comes onstream.

The ability to run these NPPs, both the old and the new, in the remote Chukotka area, highlights one of the benefits of SMRs and a strong argument for pressing

forward now with R&D. The world needs this new technology to satisfy growing demands for clean electricity. It guarantees that SMRs will be a major theme of discussion at the 2020 edition of the World Nuclear Exhibition (WNE), 23-25 June in Paris, culminating in a debate on Day 3.

In support of international efforts to develop this promising new technology, GIFEN plans to publish a handbook to help identify business opportunities surrounding SMRs. Céline Cudelou, executive director of GIFEN Services, said she expected the handbook to be available at WNE.

Lack of harmonisation

A major bone of contention in the development and deployment of SMRs is the lack of harmonisation in regulations internationally. A senior industry figure observed that “nothing much is going to happen” unless national regulatory bodies can agree on the parameters of development, deployment, operation and decommissioning.

Ironically, when one of the main benefits of SMRs is their exceptional portability, “if SMR manufacturers have to cope with different regulations worldwide, it will kill them,” he said. Few countries have a big enough domestic market to sustain an SMR industry by themselves.

Industry recognises the problem and is attempting to address it. A welcome aspect of the international cooperation framework signed last September between EDF and CEA and Westinghouse Electric was its stated intention to “pursue regulatory and design standardisation” alongside their commercial goals in developing SMRs.

CEA chairman François Jacq said: “Targeting mainly the export market that imposes the harmonization of design, safety and operating standards, CEA considers this framework agreement as a key gate to open international cooperation with the main players in nuclear development.”

EDF and CEA are two of the four partners in the Nuward initiative, alongside Naval Group and TechnicAtome, which was set up to develop a PWR-based solution for decarbonised, safe and competitive electricity generation.

In North America, where SMR research is also gaining momentum, regulators in Canada and the United States last year took a significant step toward harmonisation with a Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC). Signed by the heads of the US’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, this agreement – hailed as the first-of-a-kind – was designed to enhance technical reviews of SMR and advanced reactor technologies.

Investment in SMRs

Governments and private investors alike are backing SMR development. The UK government has made support of nuclear power research part of its industrial strategy. Last year it invested £18m (US$23m) in a consortium led by Rolls-Royce to develop SMRs, funding that will be matched by consortium members and third-party investors.

Rolls-Royce said at the time it had already received “expressions of interest” from other countries.

In the US, where nuclear energy is seldom out of the news, one company regularly grabbing the headlines is NuScale Energy. Clearing the key fourth phase of review of its design certification application puts the company on track to delivering the US’s first SMR.

The first customer for NuScale’s SMR design, the Utah Associated Municipal Power System (UAMPS), expects to be generating electricity at its NuScale plant by 2026. The 12-module plant at the Idaho National Laboratory will be capable of generating 720 MWe of electricity.

Elsewhere, the cooperation between South Korea and Saudi Arabia on the development of the Korean-designed System-Integrated Modular Advanced Reactor (SMART) SMR took a further step forward with the recent signing of a pre-project engineering contract. The partners are reportedly looking to shorten the review process to accelerate the construction of the reactor and acquire a standard design approval for easier export. The recent addition of Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP) to the consortium brings valuable experience in building and operating reactors.

For its part, the IAEA is coordinating the efforts of its member states to develop SMRs of various types by taking a systematic approach to identifying and developing key enabling technologies. The goal, it says, is “to achieve competitiveness and reliable performance of such reactors.”