In the month of May this year, Oregon based NuScale Power accomplished a significant feat. It completed Phase 1 review from the U.S. regulators for the design of its small modular reactor. It is being seen as an early but crucial step in the development of small nuclear technology. Two other firms, Holtec International and BWXT mPower, are also moving through the pre-application process with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the approval of their small modular reactors. The advocates of small modular reactors (SMRs) say that SMRs come with the promise of a number of appealing features, but are they really a viable option for sustainable energy? Let’s find out.
What are Small Modular Reactors?
Small modular reactors are basically smaller versions of traditional full-sized nuclear reactors. According to International Atomic Energy Agency, small modular reactors have a power output of up to 300 MW. Traditional full-sized nuclear power reactors boast around 1,000 MW, which is more than three times the power output of small modular reactors.
Most of the small modular reactors today work in the range of 50 MW, which is enough to power 60,000 modern U.S. homes. The scientists and engineers are also working on “mini” or “micro-reactors” capable of generating as few as 4 MW.
Small Nuclear Reactors is not a new concept!
Although small nuclear reactor design is undergoing many transformations today, they aren’t actually new.
- They have been installed in aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines since the 1950s.
- Rolls-Royce has produced them for the Royal Navy for decades.
How do small modular reactors compare to the traditional nuclear reactors?
Although small modular reactors are smaller in size and output, they are far more accessible and take much less time to build. There are many other advantages of having mini nuclear reactors:
- The capital start-up costs are much lower. So, there won’t be much of cost risks for interested builders.
- The electricity grids of some countries are not powerful enough to handle the huge power load from a full-sized nuclear power plant. It would cause them to overload and shut down. SMRs can be an ideal option for such countries.
- SMRs can be manufactured and assembled at a central factory and then sent to the site of installation. Remote locations without good manufacturing facilities can benefit from this.
Are small modular reactors safe?
SMRs are safer in comparison to the traditional nuclear reactors as they come equipped with better safety features, such as –
- A natural cooling feature which comes via an underground cooling mechanism.
- It can function without external power as the primary coolant system, using natural circulation that requires no pumps. This safety feature can provide a hedge against core meltdown, which was the cause of 2011, Fukushima, nuclear disaster.
What are the drawbacks?
Although SMRs may have many appealing features, their main drawback is the increased running costs. A study found that power from small modular reactors (SMRs) would cost nearly one-third more than the traditional nuclear power plants by 2030s. From a small modular reactor, each kWh of electricity would cost between 15% and 70% more than the traditional nuclear power plants, due to economies of scale.
Are SMRs a viable option for sustainable energy?
Small nuclear reactors seem to be a viable option to lend the much-needed support to the nuclear energy industry. The price per megawatt may not be any lower than the traditional nuclear power plants, but they do have other advantages as they are smaller in size. Also, since they are cheaper per reactor than the larger ones, the funds to build them can be easier to obtain. This advantage combined with the other benefits listed above make small modular reactors more viable sustainable energy option than traditional nuclear plants.
Whether small modular reactors would be able to add significant nuclear generation to the grid is a question that can’t be answered for sure as of now, but, in a nation where it’s no more possible to build new nuclear power plants and the demand for energy is at all time high, it could simply be the technology needed to get the nation moving forward.