Nuclear power is a low-carbon energy, which is its strength. Nevertheless, its danger and the treatment of its waste make it a criticized energy that strongly divides public opinion. The new investments made in the nuclear sector worldwide are aimed at developing the technology to make its use safer and to revolutionize this sector in depth in order to democratize its acceptance in the future. Thus, new technological advances are being developed and the new SMR technology is one of them, if not the main one.
Indeed, the technology of small modular reactors, considered as mini nuclear power plants, offers many advantages compared to traditional nuclear power plants or even to the ERPs announced as the future of nuclear power some time ago, which seem to have been put on the back burner from now on and to be rather a short-term solution before the launch of the SMR sites. This SMR technology is based on these pressurized water reactors (PWR) to meet the growing needs of the decarbonized electricity market.
First, it is less expensive to produce, less dangerous, and easily manageable on the grid. These new small modular reactors have several advantages that make them the long-awaited alternative to the nuclear industry. Indeed, despite these advantages and its reduced size, these SMRs have a power that varies from 10 to 400 MWh depending on their size and the technology used, when a power plant has an average power of 1000 MWh. Thus, its slightly reduced power is largely compensated by the advantages it offers, especially for the oldest and most polluting coal-fired power plants, the power is about 300 to 400 MWh, the equivalent of some SMRs. The IEA estimates that this transition should reduce the global production of electricity from coal by 80% by 2040 compared to its level in 2017. Their size also offers the possibility of building several of them.
In addition, beyond its energy benefits, SMRs would allow cities to be heated because they produce heat, and decarbonized hydrogen, but also fresh water because it allows the desalination of seawater.
The race for SMRs
Therefore, many countries around the world are working hard to advance their developments. Indeed, whether through private investment as in the United States with the start-up NuScale Power and state support, also in Canada which has planned to replace no less than 30 coal-fired power plants by SMR by 2030. France has announced a €1 billion investment plan in the new technology of small modular reactors (SMR). France’s objective is to establish its own project called Nuward. The United Kingdom, through its Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has released an envelope of 525 million pounds to develop this technology, particularly with the Rolls-Royce project. The various projects listed range from €100 million to more than €1.5 billion depending on the countries involved and the projects they want to implement. We are clearly witnessing a race for innovation between large nations wishing to achieve energy independence at a lower cost while reducing their carbon footprint, the SMRs have everything of a good plan. But for this price to be competitive, SMRs must meet certain requirements, notably in terms of assembly, they must be compact, modular, safe thanks to a simplified design, and factory-built to reduce construction risks but also times. With all these conditions, economies of scale can be achieved because this will promote series effects, and thus reduce unit costs while increasing production.
A necessary cooperation
Nevertheless, a certain harmonization is expected between all the different SMR projects, in order to promote possible exports without fundamentally modifying its design, also with a view to series effects. Moreover, each SMR cannot be intended to comply with each specific regulatory body in each country, but the introduction of a harmonized body that would issue safety standards for all would be welcome and has already been proposed with the IAEA Vienna Center. At the level of cooperation, wider access to markets could then result and above all strategic alignment between countries, but also within a country, could only be beneficial to the development of SMRs.
In addition, beyond all the advantages mentioned above, SMRs offer a possibility to combine energies with an electric mix. Indeed, renewable energies are intermittent, and consequently this new technology could become the perfect complement thanks to their flexibility which would allow to leave room for them. Indeed, if their power is not negligible, it is still much lower than the largest power plants capable of supplying Europe, which run at around 1000 to 1700 MWh, so its complementarity with other types of renewable and clean energy is not to be left to chance.
SMR for the future
This reflects the craze around this technological advance which first allows to avoid radioactive discharges even in case of a serious accident. This would allow SMRs to become a credible alternative to the coal-fired power plants that are due to close and a complement to existing renewable energies. So, the timing is perfect.
Nevertheless, this new type of reactor is not expected to see the light of day before 2030, after having passed a significant testing and certification phase. Indeed, the only task that could be put on the table of SMRs would be the time needed for their development and construction, but also and above all a rather long certification phase of about 8 to 10 years, because many tests must be carried out in order to be able to put them into service, even if the technology has already been validated. This can considerably slow down the arrival of this technology in the wake of global nuclear power, especially if mistakes are made and need to be corrected, which would further delay the process. This process will indeed be long, but it is estimated that by 2030, SMRs will represent about 10% of the world’s nuclear projects.