Fix the Planet Newsletter: Can small nuclear power become big?

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A mock-up of what one of Rolls-Royce SMR’s new mini nuclear power plants could look like.

Rolls Royce

Hello and welcome to this week’s Fix the Planet, the weekly climate change newsletter that reminds you that there are reasons for hope in science and technology around the world. To receive this free monthly newsletter delivered to your inbox, sign up here.

I have just recovered from the COP26 summit in Glasgow, where 196 countries agreed to step up their action on climate change. While wind and solar power are often featured prominently at UN climate summits, nuclear has historically had little presence, despite providing a constant supply of low-carbon energy.

Exceptionally, nuclear power has been showcased in Glasgow, at official conference events, side business and popped up as a topic at press briefings.

A new technology has appeared a few times: small modular reactors (SMR), mini nuclear power plants that would be built in a factory and transported to a site for assembly. A British consortium led by Rolls-Royce wants to build a fleet in the country to export around the world as a complement to low-carbon renewable energy. During COP26, the consortium received £ 210million from the UK government. More private investment is expected soon.

Yet questions abound. Why should this technology succeed where large nuclear power plants have failed to take off in recent years, beyond China? If they are small, will they reduce emissions enough? And will they arrive in time to make a difference in a rapidly warming world? Read on.

What is the step?

Large new nuclear power plants, such as Olkiluoto 3 in Finland and Hinkley Point C in the UK, are infamous for going over time and on budget. Assuming Olkiluoto 3 hits full power next year as planned, it will be 13 years behind. And the huge upfront costs – around £ 23bn in Hinkley’s case – mean it can take a long time to get a final investment decision on new factories, as the slow progress in the fire shows. green across the UK.

Advocates of SMRs argue that they solve these problems, because building them in a factory and assembling them on site will be faster and cheaper. Additionally, they say the technology will be more flexible, an important quality in energy systems increasingly dominated by the variable nature of renewables. “The big push here is the pace,” says Alastair Evans at Rolls-Royce SMR. “These are not large scale nuclear projects, we are not building the biggest steam turbine in the world, the biggest crane in the world, the biggest construction site in Europe.”

What exactly is planned?

The reactors Rolls-Royce SMR wants to build have been in development for six years, with their roots in those the company previously built for nuclear submarines. Although it is billed as small, the new reactor design is quite large. Each would have a capacity of 470 megawatts, far more than the 300 MW generally considered to be the cap of an SMR. The consortium initially hopes to build four power plants at existing nuclear sites in the UK. Ultimately, he wants a fleet of 16, enough to replace the amount of nuclear capacity that is expected to be lost in the UK this decade as aging nuclear power plants retire. Later, SMRs could also be exported to all over the world.

Evans says the first SMR would cost around £ 2.3bn and could be operational by 2031. Later versions could drop to £ 1.8bn, he claims. It might sound cheap compared to Hinkley, but an offshore wind farm with twice the capacity now costs around £ 1 billion, and that figure will be even lower in a decade.

Why might the plan be successful?

“I think it has a lot of potential,” said Richard Howard of analysts at Aurora Energy Research. On the one hand, the expected subsidy cost for Rolls-Royce SMR is significantly lower than that of the obvious alternative means of providing a continuous supply of low-carbon energy: large-scale nuclear and gas power plants equipped with capture and carbon storage. Second, he notes that SMRs should be more flexible – able to scale up and scale back as needed – compared to large nuclear power plants, which are usually always on. “What SMRs provide is a very good complement to renewables,” Howard says.

He believes there are two reasons why the Rolls-Royce SMR vision can come true. The first is that the private sector invests significant sums for development. The other is the growing international interest in technology. While France is committed to reducing the share of nuclear in its energy mix, last year, its government increased its interest in SMR. Romania and Bulgaria recently signed agreements with US SMR developers that could pave the way for the first European SMRs towards the end of this decade. Canada and the United States have been interested in this for a long time.

What could trip them up?

SMRs have been in development for years but have made little progress to date. The UK government has talked about it for much of the past decade, without showing anything. Progress elsewhere in the world has also been slow. Outside of Russia, no commercial SMR is connected to the electricity grids. Even China, one of the few countries to have built new nuclear power plants in recent years, only started building a demonstration SMR at the start of this year, four years behind schedule. It was only last year that the leading US company NuScale obtained a design license from the US authorities.

Paul Dorfman of the nonprofit Nuclear Consulting Group, a group of academics critical of nuclear power, says the nuclear industry has always argued that economies of scale will reduce costs, so it’s hard to see why a small size will work. He says modularization – making reactors in factories – will only lower costs if those factories have a full order book, which may not materialize. “It’s chicken and eggs in the supply chain,” he says. He also notes that factories will always create radioactive waste (another potential next-generation nuclear technology, fusion, does not). And he fears nuclear sites near coasts and rivers may be increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as storm surges as the sea rises.

And after?

Rolls-Royce SMR submitted its reactor design for approval to the UK nuclear regulator this month, a process that could take around five years. He must now choose three locations for the factories and start building them. The group must also win a contract for the difference from the British government, a guaranteed floor price for electricity produced by SMRs. Considering the government’s support for the technology so far, this doesn’t seem like a huge obstacle.

The technology is also still young and can have hiccups. The much vaunted cost savings through modularization might not materialize. The planning process can be problematic. Nonetheless, says Howard: “While there are challenges, I think they are surmountable. “

Whether SMRs play an important role in helping renewables decarbonize power grids remains to be seen, but observers believe they will have a role to play. “My summary is that we cannot achieve net zero on the basis of renewables alone. SMRs on paper seem to be an attractive proposition, ”says Howard.

MORE CORRECTIONS

  • How has COP26 changed the course of this century’s warming? Analysis at the summit suggested that pledges for Glasgow put the world on track for 2.4 ° C. But an article published in Nature Climate Change Monday says we need to stop looking for such levels of precision and that a range of 2.2 ° C to 2.9 ° C is a better way to look at the result.
  • Speaking of Glasgow, a wind farm near the city has to offer a new neighbor an electrolyzer to use the water and renewable electricity from the turbines to produce ‘green hydrogen’. Learn more about hydrogen in this New scientist article.
  • Rainwater could be used to help microorganisms generate electricity with a microbial fuel cell, a team of researchers has shown. All the details in Royal Society Open Science yesterday.
  • Wind and solar power reign supreme in renewables in the UK, but tidal power is set to get a boost with the UK government’s announcement of £ 20million in grants yesterday for projects.
  • The number of countries and companies with net zero commitments has grown significantly – but an update from the ECIU think tank now shows that around half of companies have not been clear on their plans for the controversial idea of ​​carbon offsets.

Elsewhere in the New scientist universe, you might be interested in this story about what the collapse of the British energy company Bulb means for the renewable energy revolution, and know that Discovery Tours has a new wildlife tour of Sri Lanka.

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