IAEA Discusses The Potential Of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs)

Several member states of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) met in Pitesti, Romania in late June to discuss the future of green energy and ways to achieve CO2 emission reductions. Their discussion – which included 46 participants from 14 member states – focused primarily on small modular reactors (SMRs).

SMRs are nuclear power generators, only far smaller in comparison to traditional nuclear facilities found throughout the world as they generally have a maximum output of 300 megawatts (for comparison, the Monticello nuclear facility in Minnesota is 671 megawatts).

The below article was originally published by IAEA on July 8 and details why low-carbon power systems capable of generating flexible, yet constant, electricity such as SMRs will be incredibly vital in the coming years – especially if policymakers and utilities continue to shutter coal plants prematurely in favor of intermittent generation from wind and solar sources.

For anyone who has been paying attention to the energy sector in the United States and elsewhere (like Germany), it has become increasingly obvious that the “transition” to wind and solar energy is impossible without another energy source capable of producing electricity for when there is no sun or wind. (Which makes you question: why do we need wind and solar at all?)

In recent years, the preferred backup energy source for renewable generation has been natural gas – but IAEA is suggesting SMRs could be the choice of the future.

Developing cost effective, decarbonized power systems is central to meeting Sustainable Development Goals 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) and 13 (Climate Action), and small modular reactors (SMRs) may play an important role in reducing carbon emissions, experts agreed at a recent IAEA workshop.

The 46 participants coming from 14 Member States as well as representatives from two reactor vendors met in Pitesti, Romania, from 24 to 27 June for the Regional Workshop on SMR Deployment Scenarios in Global Energy Portfolio. Their focus was to review potential applications for SMRs beyond electricity production and consider how these reactors might fit into energy systems which may include other low carbon energy sources. They discussed factors leading Member States to pursue SMRs and heard presentations from reactor vendors on the current state of the technology. Participants also exchanged information on financing challenges and licensing issues associated with the nascent SMR designs. About 50 SMR designs are currently under various stages of development and deployment.

SMRs can offer several advantages over existing reactors in terms of cost and flexibility. Modular components are prefabricated before being brought to the plant site, which significantly reduces construction costs, and their small size (maximum power output of 300 MW(e) per unit) makes them ideal for deployment in countries with small grids and less developed infrastructure. They may also be used for a variety of non-electric applications, including desalination and district heating.

“In order to meet the carbon emission targets established in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as well as the Paris Agreement, it will be necessary to decarbonize not only the energy sector, but the industrial sector as well,” said Marco Cometto, an energy economist at the IAEA. “The relatively low cost of SMRs, together with their wide range of potential applications, makes them an attractive option for future decarbonized energy mixes.”

The workshop, hosted by Romania’s National Commission for Nuclear Activities Control, is the latest activity of an IAEA regional technical cooperation project, Facilitating Capacity Building for Small Modular Reactors: Technology Developments, Safety Assessment, Licensing and Utilization, aimed at assisting Member States in Europe to build capacity in the area of SMRs so that the increasing demand for carbon free energy can be met. Through an ongoing series of workshops, the project is providing a forum for exchanging technical information on several challenges associated with SMR deployment including issues around the design and technology of SMRs as well as licensing, safety assessment and modes of implementation.

“The continued rise of renewable energy sources, particularly wind generation, has changed the economics of grid management such that load following capabilities are becoming increasingly desirable for historically baseload plants,” said Zeljko Tomsic, a professor in the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing at the University of Zagreb. Load following power plants can adjust their output throughout the day according to demand fluctuations, whereas baseload power plants are usually operated at their maximum capacity regardless of demand. “The flexibility of SMRs, including the relative ease of integrating additional modules as necessary, makes these reactors well-suited to the task of generating electricity within a dynamic low carbon energy system.”

Egidijus Norvaisa, a research associate at the Lithuanian Energy Institute, is encouraged by the potential utility of SMRs to power district heating in Lithuania. “District heating makes up a significant portion of Lithuania’s energy consumption during the winter, and it is important to have the energy source close to consumers to avoid losses in the heat supply network,” he said. “SMRs built near our cities could therefore not only provide electricity but could also serve as a primary source of heat.” Such a deployment scenario would reduce energy prices and decrease fossil fuel consumption, he added.

Participants agreed that while nuclear power, and SMRs in particular, can play a major role in future decarbonized energy systems, regulatory and licensing uncertainties remain major challenges for the deployment of SMRs. They also concurred that financing issues must be addressed in order to optimize the deployment of SMRs in combination with other renewable energy sources.

Under the technical cooperation project, several more workshops will be organized later this year focusing on design safety, safety assessment, regulatory and licensing issues as well as emergency preparedness and response for SMRs. The potential of SMRs and other advanced nuclear power technologies to address climate change goals will also be in focus at the upcoming International Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power to be held from 7 to 11 October 2019 in Vienna.