Sourcing clean energy for the future: small and modular nuclear technology is the answer

By Nathan Tedford | February 28, 2020

When most people think of nuclear power generation, they think of large, utility-scale, centralized nuclear power plants that provide power to larger, interconnected grids. Small modular reactors—commonly referred to as SMRs—on the other hand are nuclear fission reactors designed to be built in smaller modules that produce less power than a conventional nuclear power plant unit. As we transition to non-carbon-emitting sources, this clean energy technology can and will play a critical role.

But first, we must overcome the common perception that SMRs are solely focused at the on-grid (utility) power market. While the on-grid power market is certainly key to the widespread adoption of SMR technology, it’s by no means the only market that could benefit from its adoption. Smaller unit sizes allow SMRs to reach markets that large-scale nuclear power generation is not well suited to support—in other words, markets that are grid connected but not currently supported by the existing nuclear baseload. Additionally, modular fabrication and construction can reduce construction cost and schedule, and the evolution of both traditional reactor designs as well as the deployment of new advanced reactors both improve safety and operational efficiency.

Consider the smaller class of reactors—very small modular reactors (vSMRs) or micro-reactors—which are being developed with power outputs on the order of 1-10 MW to address remote power opportunities. These reactors are designed with transportability and resiliency in mind, aligning with the needs for powering remote communities and mines. Given that these remote locations typically rely on diesel generators for power—which are costly and often rely on uncertain seasonal transportation windows—vSMRs present a promising and economically competitive option for power generation in these regions. These reactors also present a much more environmentally favorable alternative to diesel power generation.

Further still, the development of some classes of advanced reactors also provides the opportunity to utilize SMRs for industrial heat and power. While conventional nuclear power produces steam at relatively low temperatures, newer reactor designs can provide a heat source that in some cases reach up to 700⁰ Celsius. This could enable new technologies for industrial processes such as hydrogen production or desalination, that when coupled with the electricity an SMR can provide, makes them very attractive for combined heat and power needs.

It’s not to say that SMRs don’t come with their own set of challenges. Licensing and environmental approvals may still present long lead times, particularly for first-of-a-kind units. They also require skilled, specially trained staff to oversee operations, maintenance, and regulatory affairs, while also managing waste and spent-fuel issues. For non-traditional nuclear industries, these considerations can seem daunting.

We want to challenge that thinking because the future for SMRs is on our doorstep. Plans for demonstration plants and first commercial units are being advanced with the first operational units targeted to enter service in the mid-to-late 2020s. We have the know-how to develop new technologies and make them commercially viable, and when it comes to SMRs, we have done the homework to define and demonstrate the real benefits that this technology presents. As we seek to meet aggressive global carbon-free targets, we’re inching closer to the day where small-scale nuclear energy will be readily available for deployment, and we’re working to ensure the success of that transition for both end-users and developers as it occurs.