Small nuclear power plants are gaining ground

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Discussions about nuclear power plants are usually quite black and white. Supporters and opponents are downright opposed to each other. Which of the two will win is still uncertain. But the trend is clear: the list of new nuclear projects is growing rapidly.

This is especially true of small modular nuclear power plants, otherwise known as SMR reactors. At least 70 companies around the world are working on this technology. These include Terrapower from the United States, co-funded by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. In France, several companies have joined forces on the “NUWARD” project and in the United Kingdom, Rolls Royce is developing small-scale nuclear power plants.

Poland grabbed attention last week with two orders at the same time. That of the Polish mining company KGHM which wants to order at least four and perhaps even twelve of these SMR reactors from the American company Nu Scale Power, a subsidiary of the Fluor Corporation.

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Read our story on the KGHM project here.

At the same time, another Polish company, the chemist Synthos, signed a preliminary contract with a group of Canadian and American companies for so-called BWRX-300 reactors. These include the companies Cameco, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy and GEH SMR Technologies Canada.

Artist’s impression BWRX-300 reactor. Photo GE Hitachi Nuclear Power

In its infancy

Geert Verbong, professor at the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU / e), is not yet convinced. “The point is, these types of SMR reactors have never been used on a large scale,” he says. They are still in the experimental phase. In addition, he adds, they face the same problems as large existing and new generation nuclear power plants. “This means that opponents will see no advantage,” he argues.

The only major benefit Verbong sees is that small modular reactors could be useful as flexible core energy sources. A disadvantage of large nuclear power plants is that, from a cost point of view, they are only attractive if they are able to guarantee a fixed supply of electricity. But this is precisely the problem with sustainable energy as well. There are times with a lot of wind and solar power and times when there is less. Small SMR reactors may be suitable to fill these gaps. Large nuclear power plants are far too expensive for that.

Canada

Canadian nuclear energy expert Marcel de Vos – a child of Dutch immigrants – is slightly more positive about the outlook. He also agrees that this is a technique that still needs to be further developed. He himself is not directly involved in this matter on behalf of the Canadian regulator CNSC, although he is indirectly involved. The CNSC is the licensing body for new nuclear power plants in Canada. There is close cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and regulatory bodies and engineers from other countries, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom. “The aim is to improve and harmonize technical regulations and safety standards as much as possible.”

Right now, things aren’t looking so bad for SMRs, according to De Vos. “I see technological potential for these new reactor designs with improvements in safety, ease of operation and maintenance, and waste stream management. I also don’t see why these kinds of plants would not be suitable for a densely populated country like the Netherlands. In China, they are already building such a facility and in Canada, there are two projects in the authorization phase. “

It is a micro nuclear power plant of only 5 MWh from Chalk Rivers Laboratories and the Darlington New Nuclear Plat project (300 MWh).

Yale Climate Connections

Interestingly, there isn’t as much discussion in North America about the danger of nuclear accidents or the problematic storage of nuclear waste. It’s more a question of cost and other environmental issues there. This is evident in a Yale Climate Connections documentary and other sources.

Energy experts interviewed in this documentary find that the main environmental disadvantage of SMR reactors is that they consume a lot of water, a scarce resource, especially as the earth continues to heat up.

Saul Griffith, an Australian-American inventor and CEO of Other Lab, points out that nuclear power is relatively safe and reliable compared to other forms of energy. “But politically speaking, of course, there is a lot of backlash, and I personally worry about whether there will be enough cooling water available.” In the long run, he doubts that clean and reliable nuclear power can compete with wind and solar power.

Daniel Kammen, a nuclear physicist at the University of California at Berkeley, hopes there will be a place for nuclear power in the future energy mix. “But there is still a lot of research to be done to make it competitive.”

Arjun Makhijani of the Energy and Environment Research Institute has a negative opinion. He sees only one reason why there is suddenly so much attention on small nuclear power plants, “It’s because big nuclear power plants have failed.” Another downside in his opinion is the time factor. It may be another ten years before SMR reactors can be safely deployed on a large scale. This time frame is too long for the climate, and it is highly likely that solar panels and wind turbines will be much cheaper than they are today.

Bill Gates

One of the most prominent supporters of SMR reactors is Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Earlier this year, in an interview with CNN reporter Anderson Cooper, he said the world needs major technological breakthroughs to solve the climate problem. Gates certainly sees a role for SMRs in this regard.

That’s why Gates invests in the Terrapower company. It also invests in many other companies focused on green technologies, ranging from companies that store CO2 to companies that make meat substitutes.


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