Creating energy with smaller nuclear plants the size of a garbage can? That is what the small modular reactor (SMR) technology offers. But what are SMRs and what are their advantages over conventional nuclear power plants?
- Small modular nuclear reactors are small-sized, factory-built nuclear generators.
- This new technology would allow faster deployment and reduced costs.
- They could produce a theoretically infinite amount of electricity while creating zero green gas emissions.
- The market is expected to be worth $150 billion to $300 billion by 2040.
- While many are enthusiastic about the project, others remain sceptical about its safety and economic viability.
- SMRs could be a more reliable energy than solar or wind energy and might even help to produce energy on space colonies.
What are SMRs?
Nuclear centrals tend to be a large investment, with facilities that can only be built on site, and they produce a lot of carbon emissions. Small modular nuclear reactors are factory built nuclear reactors that are significantly smaller than traditional nuclear power plants.
And by small, we mean small: the smallest version, built by NASA, is hardly larger than a garbage can. This makes them easy to transport by ship or train, which gives them this added benefit of modularity. Unlike other traditional nuclear facilities, which generally require large areas to be built, and generate their usual 600-1,400 megawatts (MW), SMRs can easily be installed on demand on small grid, and even off the grid, to produce between 3 and 300 MW. To give yourself an idea, a traditional nuclear plant can power a city, whereas a SMR is more suited to a small village or town.
The added benefits of factory construction, mobility and advanced technology make SMRs an attractive alternative to larger power plants, as they can be manufactured on a large scale and deployed and redeployed wherever we need them.
SMRs could be cheaper, safer and more environmentally-friendly
As you know already, nuclear power is not a very loved concept these days, both because of its safety and impact on the environment. Their high cost of development and maintenance has also reduced interest for them since the 1980s and led to the decommissioning of many plants in several countries. However, the new technology being developed offers the promise of a competitive price and potentially limitless electricity production with little greenhouse gas emissions. It makes SMRs more attractive, not only because traditional power plants burn fossil fuels, but because they are a more reliable power source than wind or solar energy.
Climate friendly SMRs could therefore substitute the dying beasts that are large nuclear power plants, which are not very climate-friendly, burning tons and tons of coal and gas.
SMRs work in a very similar manner to conventional nuclear reactors, splitting atoms to heat water and produce steam, producing electricity when it goes through the generator. What changes everything is their compact size, which reduces the need for thick shielding and complex safety systems that are usually necessary.
The economic forecast of SMRs is promising, with a global market value projected to range from $150 billion to $300 billion between 2025 and 2040.
New system using salt instead of water designed by General Electrics and TerraPower being tested (Source: Terrapower)
Operational challenges for SMRs
While SMRs carry many advantages of manufacturing, cost, size, and complexity compared to conventional nuclear plants, they still carry the stigma and perceived risks of nuclear power. Companies and governments working on the project will have to put in high efforts in convincing and building confidence from the public for this new energy alternative.
The main issues to be dealt with are waste management and security. While it is true that SMRs produce less waste, they still produce some. The fact that they could be deployed in a decentralized manner would mean long-range transportation from many different areas, increasing transport time and costs. One would need to find a solution for safe storage which could be reached in a timely and safe manner.
The global reaction to SMRs
The World Nuclear Association touted the enormous potential of SMRs, for their safety, modularity, and small size. The US government also showed support to their development, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a final safety report on the technology, which is a crucial step before an official approval.
The US Energy Department has granted $210 million last fall to 10 projects developing SMRs and other linked projects, in addition to the $400 million they had previously granted since 2014. Dozens of research and manufacturing initiatives are launched throughout the world, with already many interested buyers, such as US utilities or Eastern Europe countries looking to reach energy independence.
However, Greenpeace remains doubtful, and warns that in any form, nuclear energy remains a dead-end and dangerous way of producing energy. The Canadian Environmental Law Association issued a petition to go against the development of the technology, saying that “Small modular reactor development is too slow to address the climate crisis”, criticizing the cost and radioactive waste they would create.
M.V. Ramana, professor of disarmament and global security at the university of British Columbia, warns that the only way that larger plants were profitable was because the output usually increases faster than the construction and operating costs, a ratio that has no reason to change today. He also adds that reduced shielding and modulating factor could create more danger.
In any case, there is still much to discuss on the matter. The project is interesting and could change the way we produce nuclear energy but the economic viability and safety of SMRs remains to be seen.
A potential application for space colonies
When, like NASA, you plan landing missions on the Moon or more distant planets like Mars, there is one thing you need in addition to the latest technology: power. Lots of power. You need to deal with lighting, oxygen and water production, on-site experiments, and if you plan on coming back, fuel for the way back.
NASA is currently developing the Kilopower, which is essentially an SMR of the size of a garbage can. The machine could continuously provide 10 KW of energy for 10 years. Four of these machines would be enough to sustain a Martian or lunar outpost.
How to play it
Listed companies linked to SMRs: