Small modular reactors: Sparking big change in nuclear energy

Image credit

Small modular reactors: Sparking big change in nuclear energy

Small modular reactors: Sparking big change in nuclear energy

Subheading text
Small modular reactors promise cleaner power through unparalleled flexibility and convenience.
    • Author:
    • Author name
      Quantumrun Foresight
    • May 31, 2024

    Insight summary

    Small modular reactors (SMRs) provide a smaller, more adaptable alternative to traditional nuclear reactors with the capacity to enhance energy security and reduce carbon emissions globally. Their design enables factory assembly and easy transportation to installation sites, making them ideal for remote locations and contributing to faster, less costly construction projects. This technology's safety features, fuel efficiency, and potential for rural electrification and emergency power supply mark a significant shift in how countries approach clean energy generation, regulatory adaptation, and the nuclear supply chain.

    Small modular reactors context

    Unlike their larger counterparts, SMRs have a power capacity of up to 300 megawatts of electricity (MW(e)) per unit, roughly a third of the generating capacity of conventional nuclear reactors. Their design allows components and systems to be assembled in a factory and transported to the installation site as a unit. This modularity and portability make SMRs adaptable to locations unsuitable for larger reactors, enhancing their feasibility and reducing construction times and costs.

    One of the most compelling aspects of SMRs is their potential to provide low-carbon electricity in areas with limited infrastructure or remote locations. Their smaller output fits well within the existing grids or off-grid locations, making them particularly suitable for rural electrification and a reliable power source in emergencies. Microreactors, a subset of SMRs with a power generation capacity typically up to 10 MW(e), are especially suited for small communities or remote industries.

    The safety features and fuel efficiency of SMRs further distinguish them from traditional reactors. Their designs often rely more on passive safety systems that require no human intervention, minimizing the risk of radioactive release in the event of an accident. Additionally, SMRs may require less frequent refueling, with some designs operating for up to 30 years without new fuel. 

    Disruptive impact

    Countries worldwide actively pursue SMR technology to enhance their energy security, reduce carbon emissions, and foster economic growth. Russia has operationalized the world's first floating nuclear power plant, showcasing the versatility of SMRs, while Canada focuses on collaborative research and development efforts to integrate SMRs into its clean energy strategy. In the US, federal support and regulatory advancements are facilitating projects like NuScale Power's SMR design to diversify application possibilities such as power generation and industrial processes. Additionally, Argentina, China, South Korea, and the UK are exploring SMR technology to meet their environmental targets and energy needs. 

    Regulatory bodies need to adapt current frameworks to accommodate the unique features of SMRs, such as their modular construction and the potential for siting flexibility. These frameworks may involve developing new safety standards, licensing procedures, and oversight mechanisms tailored to the specific characteristics of SMRs. Additionally, international collaboration on research, development, and standardization of SMR technologies can accelerate their deployment and integration into the global energy system.

    Companies involved in the nuclear supply chain may experience increased demand for modular components, which can be produced more efficiently in factory settings and then transported to sites for assembly. This modular approach can lead to shorter construction timelines and lower capital costs, making nuclear energy projects more financially attractive to investors and utility companies. Furthermore, industries that require a reliable source of process heat, such as desalination plants and chemical manufacturing, could benefit from the high-temperature output of specific SMR designs, opening up new avenues for industrial efficiency and environmental sustainability.

    Implications of small modular reactors

    Wider implications of SMRs may include: 

    • Enhanced grid stability in remote and rural areas, reducing reliance on diesel generators and promoting energy equity.
    • A shift in job opportunities towards high-tech manufacturing and nuclear operations, requiring new skill sets and training programs.
    • Lowered barriers to entry for countries aiming to adopt nuclear power, democratizing access to clean energy technologies.
    • Increased local opposition to nuclear projects due to safety concerns and waste management issues, necessitating community engagement and transparent communication.
    • More flexible energy systems that can easily integrate renewable sources, leading to a more resilient energy infrastructure.
    • Governments revising energy policies to incorporate SMR deployment strategies, emphasizing low-carbon energy sources.
    • Changes in land use patterns, with SMRs requiring less space than traditional power plants or large renewable installations.
    • New financing models for energy projects, driven by the reduced capital costs and scalability of SMRs.
    • Increased research and development into advanced nuclear technologies, spurred by the operational experiences and data collected from SMR deployments.

    Questions to consider

    • How might SMRs address the safety and waste management concerns associated with nuclear power?
    • What role can individuals play in shaping public policy and opinion on nuclear energy and SMR deployment?

    Insight references

    The following popular and institutional links were referenced for this insight: