Small modular reactors: energy of the future?

MONTHLY. Search newsstands for file 901 of the monthly Science et Avenir on the topic: “Can nuclear power be clean?”. The article below was written before the start of the war in Ukraine.

Since May 2020, the world’s first floating nuclear power plant has been operating at full capacity in the Russian port of Pevek in Eastern Siberia. This new type of plant supplies the region with electricity with two reactors of only 35 megawatts each, but enough power to supply a city of 100,000 people, in particular to replace a coal-fired power plant, which will avoid the release of 50,000 tons of CO2 per year. This 144-meter floating barge, named “Akademik Lomonosov”, is the first small modular reactor – SMR for “Small Modular Reactor” – currently in operation. Started in 2006, its construction turned out to be long and expensive. But Rosatom, the operator of the system, plans to reduce the cost of the next reactors by mass-producing them. Four other floating barges are expected to eventually anchor along the coast of Chukotka to support mining operations in the region. Rosatom will also start construction of an onshore SMR from 2024 in the remote town of Ust-Kuyga in Yakutia and has just signed a cooperation protocol with the Kyrgyz Ministry of Energy to build the same type of facilities in Central Asia. Republic. All of these reactors are based on technologies pioneered for icebreakers.

Akademik Lomonosov floating power plant in the port of Pevek. It supplies the city and this region of Chukotka with electricity and heat. Credit: Rosatom

On the other side of the planet, China is making the same bet

Thus, the Russians were the first to introduce the SMR sector. “decarbonize isolated regions, mining sites and integrate into small networks, emphasizes Michel Berthelemy, an analyst at the Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD). ABOUTOperating in the same power ranges, these reactors can be integrated into existing electrical distribution networks.” But low-power modular reactors – less than 300 MW – are also generating real enthusiasm around the world, with about 70 very diverse concepts in development. “Unlike “cathedral” power plants, the SMR sector is opting for standardization and industrial production of small reactors, explains Michel Derdeve, professor at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris. This is a breakthrough in concept that meets the notion of a delocalized economy.”

After Russia, the US has the most advanced program. Thus, in August 2020, the Nuscale project was approved by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Now, on the territory of the Idaho National Laboratory, the construction of a plant of 12 modules of 77 MW each will begin. This €2.5 billion project is due to be commissioned in 2029 and will have a total capacity of 924 MW. This is another benefit of SMR: multiple modules can be combined to produce the amount of power needed for each situation. This time, the Nuscale reactors are based on reactors designed for naval power plants. The Department of Energy has already invested more than $1.2 billion since 2012 in funding a dozen projects and must double that amount in the next decade to regain its leadership in the nuclear market.

Neighboring Canada has also chosen this solution to quickly decarbonize its industrial facilities, which until now depended on energy solutions that produce a lot of CO2.

Leave a Comment