Small modular reactors: the future of nuclear

By Brian Gihm | June 17, 2016

It’s been said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. In nuclear energy, the future we’ve predicted—and invented—is inching closer all the time. Small modular reactors, commonly referred to as SMRs, have the potential to change the way the world thinks about electricity production.

SMRs are now being seriously considered for both off-grid applications (e.g., remote mines and communities) and grid-scale installations. In places like Canada’s Arctic, the Brazilian jungle, and the deserts of the Middle East, where diesel is often the fuel of choice, SMRs can offer an economically viable, safe, carbon-free alternative.

Compared to large nuclear, SMRs are potentially much cheaper and easier to handle. Today, depending on the size of the unit, the reactor core can be built for tens of millions of dollars. They’re designed as components that can be shipped by sea on barges and assembled on site. The business case for buying and constructing an SMR can be based on an “over-the-fence” supply of electricity—at a rate of about C$.20/kWh to C$0.30/kWh for a typical mine-site application or C$.50/kWh to C$0.60/kWh for a remote community. Expensive by the standards of grid-connected parts of Canada, but very comparable—even favorable—to the price and hassles of diesel fuels.

Of course, SMRs come with their own set of challenges. Licensing and environmental approvals will have long lead times, and can be expensive and onerous to complete. Like their big brothers, the large-scale nuclear power plants, SMRs will require skilled, specially trained staff to oversee operations, maintenance, and regulatory affairs, and manage waste and spent-fuel issues.

As full-scale commercial products, SMRs still have a long way to go. Financing them can make good sense for mining, manufacturing, and other energy-intensive industries. But the initial outlay is still considerable. Moreover, user companies don’t want to be in the nuclear-power-production business. It’s too specialized, too expensive. So the marketplace is ripe for an intermediary, a company willing to supply SMRs to a mine or other remotely located industry that needs a good quantity of clean, reliable electricity. One that will provide all the hardware and sweat equity that goes with it, and turn SMR supply and services into a going concern.

There’s a catch there, too. Companies would be lining up to build and operate SMRs if potential users would front the capital to fully develop the technology and produce them on some sort of mass scale. On the other hand, heavy industry, especially in remote locations, would be far more inclined to step up and embrace SMRs if there were reliable, established companies in the marketplace, ready to build the products, run and service them as needed.

With few exceptions, SMRs probably aren’t the answer to the need for electricity in places still undeveloped by 21st century standards. Parts of Africa or Asia that lack domestic maturity, that don’t have fully developed, responsible regulatory bodies, properly trained people to operate them, or the facilities to control materials and waste, would be poor candidates for SMRs.

Still, there’s a future for SMRs, and it’s coming into better focus. Companies like Hatch, that know both mining and nuclear power, are in a unique position. Not just to fill the void of SMR-design optimization, but take the ball and run with it. We know how to develop new technology and make it commercially viable, and we’ve done the homework to define and demonstrate the real benefits this technology can offer. We’re standing on the brink. Before long, the right confluence of technological possibility, cost, and real, increasing need for the benefits this kind of small-scale nuclear energy can provide will become too strong to ignore. When that happens, we’ll be ready.