Upstream opportunities for vSMRs in growing green economy

By Cobus van Rensburg | May 26, 2022

Upstream opportunities for vSMRs in growing green economy

Clean technologies form the basis of our ongoing transition to a greener economy. Low-carbon emitting technologies such as electric vehicles (EVs), energy storage, and renewable power like wind and solar are gaining prominence, and their demand continues to grow.

Certain metals and minerals such as lithium (Li), cobalt, copper, silicon, aluminum, rare earths, and silver are integral to these clean technologies. As demand for these technologies continues to grow, the need for these raw materials increases at an unprecedented pace. The rise of the EV revolution and Li-ion battery is the underlying driver for the increased demand for lithium and cobalt.  

Copper is widely used in conductors and utilized in wind power. Rare earth metals are used extensively in catalytic converters, magnets used in turbines, EVs, and computer hard drivesThis growing demand for materials is spread across the globe with lithium extraction in Australia and Chile, nickel extraction in Indonesia and Philippines, and copper in Chile, Peru, Indonesia, and Mexico. The increased efforts to obtain these raw materials leads to high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to the intense energy requirement of mining. Mining accounts for 10% of the world’s energy consumption [1]. According to a 2018 report, energy demand in mining operations is anticipated to grow by 36% by 2035 [2]. 

When looking at the overall lifecycle of these clean technologies, the decarbonization benefits of their downstream applications are negatively countered by the energy and GHG intensive upstream extraction processes of raw materials. Currently, the majority of mining operations around the globe use fossil-fuel powered transmission and distribution infrastructure, which is often unstable in remote areas where these mines are located. Or worse, they rely on high-carbon diesel generators as primary or backup sources of energy.  

Micro Small Modular Reactors/very Small Modular Reactors (micro-SMRs/vSMRs) – 25 MW or less – and Generation IV advanced reactors, currently in the design and licensing phase, are uniquely positioned to address this issue and help these “clean” technologies truly be clean, low-carbon emitting, and a pathway to greener economy.  

With the growing emphasis on sustainability, the environmental goals of mining operations, and efforts to improve carbon footprint of extraction of these critical metals - micro-SMRs are well-suited for mining operations. This is because of their ability to generate reliable, carbon-free electricity.  

Advantages for SMRs in mining are not limited to supporting power requirements. vSMRs can be utilized to fulfill the thermal energy requirements of mining, such as processing heat and steam, and the co-generation needs of the site. SMRs can also be leveraged by integrating nuclear power with technologies such as green hydrogen production. This can be used for fueling mining vehicles and for export purposes, if produced on a larger scale.  

vSMRs rely on modularization with components manufactured in a factory setting and then transported to remote or challenging locations, simplifying delivery and constructability. By vertically integrating nuclear in the extraction lifecycle of raw materials and moving toward zero-carbon mining, clean technologies, such as vSMRs, can positively address upstream vulnerabilities and dependence on high-carbon emitting energy sources for extraction, and enable a true transition to a greener economy.  

Hatch, with its vast knowledge and experience in the energy and metals sectors, is uniquely qualified to deliver sustainable solutions for mining operations that want to make a “clean break”  from fossil fuel. Transitioning to SMRs and vSMRs doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, partnering with our exceptional, diverse teams of experts makes it downright easy to be green. We make the complex seem simple.   


[1] BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019 

[2] Maennling, Nicolas and Perrine Toledano. 2018. The Renewable Power of the Mine: Accelerating Renewable Energy Integration. Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment