Article SMR

  • ‘Small’ is big news in nuclear reactors

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    3-minute read

  • Shrinking the scale of nuclear reactors is an idea that has been around for decades. The concept has been applied to nuclear-powered vessels, but has faced hurdles in being accepted for civilian power generation, partly because of public nervousness about nuclear energy and partly for reasons of cost-effectiveness.

     

    ‘Small’ reactors are defined by the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) as generating under 300MWe – the top end of that range is regarded as capable of powering around 200,000 homes – and Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are designed for serial construction.

     

    A potentially significant step in bringing the SMR concept into use was marked in late April, when the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced that it had completed the first (and most intensive) phase of review of NuScale Power’s Small Modular Nuclear Reactor.

     

    The NuScale design is the first SMR to undergo NRC review and brings the design noticeably closer to reaching production status. If the NRC’s certification process is completed successfully, a 12-module SMR plant based on this design is expected to be brought into operation in Idaho by the mid-2020s by Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems.

     

    Smaller, safer and scalable

     

    The NuScale SMR is a light water design capable of generating 50MW, using what the company describes as a smaller, safer and scalable version of pressurised water reactor technology.

     

    SMRs have attracted attention partly for their considerably lower cost compared to traditional, larger designs and for the possibility of using them on brownfield sites – for example, those previously used by coal-fired power stations. Their design also makes them able to be fabricated in a controlled setting and then shipped to their intended operating site, installed and fuelled up.

     

    Several nations, including Russia, China, the UK and France, have looked closely at the SMR concept in recent years; in 2016, for example, the UK government opened a competition to identify the most viable SMR design for the country’s requirements. At the end of last year, however, it announced the end of that competition and, instead, instituted a new ‘advanced modular reactor’ contest that would consider a larger variety of reactors.

     

    The UK’s nuclear construction industry has atrophied over the years, but Rolls-Royce sees an SMR programme as representing an opportunity not only to resurrect the industry, but to position it at the forefront of a new generation of power plants. Rolls-Royce is working on a patented modular reactor concept that could be built in factories and swiftly installed on a chosen site and in February awarded a contract to the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in the UK to develop a module demonstrator for the UK Small Modular Reactor. 

     

    Large potential global market

     

    According to the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory, there is a large potential global market for small reactors.

     

    Russia, meanwhile, plans to sail a floating nuclear powerplant, the Akademik Lomonosov, to Pevek, in the extreme north of the country’s Far East, to replace nearby land-based reactors at Bilbino that are due to shut down. The vessel, which is effectively a barge mounting two modified reactors usually found in the country’s nuclear icebreakers and generating 35MW each, left St Petersburg under tow in late April for Murmansk, where it was to be loaded with nuclear fuel. It is due to move to Pevek sometime in 2019.

     

    In December 2017, Russia’s Rosatom and the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission signed a memorandum of understanding to consider Russian SMRs for the Arab nation’s nuclear programme.

     

    China, meanwhile, was reported in summer 2017 to be on the verge of launching its ‘Nimble Dragon’ small-scale reactor, with a pilot plant on Hainan, in the south of the country. It is also thought to be working on small floating reactors that could supply power for islands in the South China Sea.

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