Get small nuclear reactors off the starting blocks - Now! – I
by Ramtanu Maitra on 26 Jan 2020 3 Comments

Mass production of modular nuclear reactors to industrialize developing countries, until fusion power comes online! That was the title I used when I last wrote about the ongoing efforts to make small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) [EIR, November 16, 2018]. SMRs will be a reliable source of a steady supply of electrical power. Some few positive steps have been taken in a few countries, including in the United States.


But the funding available to get the SMRs out of the test laboratories and deployed commercially does not match the interest expressed in SMRs by many concerned individuals around the world who acknowledge the necessity of SMRs for power generation, desalination and other societal benefits. Consequently, the existing funding also does not match the plans for development and production of this revolutionary generation of advanced nuclear reactors.


The capability to manufacture a safe and sound SMR could hardly be the only objective of SMR developers. The more important objective is to develop the capability to fabricate these SMRs in large numbers concurrently. According to one estimate, if the United States wants to secure 25% of the potential global SMR market, it must establish an assembly line to produce 28 to 30 NuScale-type SMRs annually. But this estimate, implying the addition of perhaps 10 gigawatts of nuclear power capacity per year around the world through SMRs, is completely insufficient to the demand: Seventy-five countries in the world currently cannot provide 1,000 kilowatt-hours per year per person, which is less than 10% of the American level, and 1.1 billion people still have no access to electricity at all.


If this blight on humanity is to be dramatically and quickly changed, it is SMRs that will do it, for reasons this article will demonstrate. A new international credit system will have to be established by leading industrial nations, to enable them to export capital goods on a large scale to the developing countries, enabling them to grow rapidly and productively and to thereby tackle poverty. SMRs represent a crucial category of such exports during the immediate future. It must begin by the mid-2020s, but it will only happen with such a new, and relatively vast, global generation of credit.


In other words, plans and programs to set up highly productive “assembly lines” to manufacture these SMRs are an integral part of an overall SMR development. That process has yet to take off due to lack of adequate appreciation of their potential by those who should know better, and behind the scenes blocking by green Malthusians. This is manifest in the lack of funding to jump start the many projects. SMRs will be considered a success when deployed in large numbers in energy-hungry nations, most of which are located in Africa, Asia and Latin America.


Except for a few small, but oil- and gas-rich nations in the Middle East, these power-starved nations have neither the capital resources nor the infrastructure for large nuclear power plants on the order of 1,000 MW per reactor, although such large reactors are more efficient and cost-effective when finally on line. The solution for these countries lies squarely in the speedy and abundant deployment of scalable, small modular reactors.


Developing the Modern Labor Force


To usher in an SMR-based nuclear power revolution requires generous participation of the countries where these SMRs are being developed, and wide-ranging collaboration among the countries such as the United States, Russia, China, Japan, France, among others, who have mastered the peaceful use of nuclear technology for power generation.


As for the power-short nations, necessarily only a few of the smaller nations have been able to show financial interest so far. Romania, which is well on its way to adding two new 700 MW CANDU-type units to its fleet, is nevertheless talking to at least one SMR developer. Ukraine is committing to building an SMR component factory for exports. And South Africa, which ditched the plan to buy eight 1200 MW units from Russia, is rethinking its plans for producing electrical power from nuclear energy, and smaller, more affordable units are clearly one of the possibilities it has in mind. Except for Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which have expressed their keenness to buy SMRs, very little movement has been noticed elsewhere.


It is no longer just hearsay that many of these power deprived nations clearly recognize that the setting up of nuclear power generation plants is of absolute necessity for developing a workforce that for the first time will be backed by a hundred-percent reliable power source -  the very essence for developing the foundation of any economy. A power-strong infrastructure enables the setting up of viable industrial and commercial sectors, urgently needed by the people of those countries.


The reason that those countries will be in the market for purchasing SMRs is not only that the capital cost for SMRs is manageable and installation time is short, but also that they do not demand a strong power transmission infrastructure. Most importantly, these reactors will come completely fabricated and tested in the factory. All that will be required is transportation, by land and sea, and setting them up. Added advantage? These SMRs are scalable. Fabricated modules can be added over a period of time to increase power generation as needed to meet growing economic requirements.


Nonetheless, the success of SMRs will depend on how much and how quickly nations such as the United States, Canada, Russia and China finance the entire gamut of SMR development. Russia is developing small reactors mainly for export. “Russia’s energy system is more suited to large nuclear plants,” Anton Moskvin, Vice President of Rusatom Overseas responsible for marketing and business development, told Nuclear Engineering International on October 3, 2018.


Floating plants could be of interest to nations needing to supply power and water to isolated territories, or facing seasonal power shortages, or having underdeveloped power systems, he said. Russians admit that floating plants have limitations and cannot be set inland.


Why SMRs


A few points as to why the SMRs are attractive for developing and developed nations are reiterated here. For instance:

• As major components can be manufactured offsite and shipped to the point of use, SMRs allow for the centralization of manufacturing expertise.

• Limited on-site construction is required, as work is concentrated in the manufacturing stage.

• Individual factories could fabricate components for multiple SMRs, increasing fleet-wide design consistency and standardization.

• Modularity and standardized designs can also increase the safety and efficiency of plant operations, as they eliminate idiosyncratic design features between plants and streamline operating and maintenance procedures.

• The cost of an SMR has been estimated to be between $800 million and $3 billion per unit, whereas a large reactor typically costs between $10 billion and $12 billion per unit.

• The smaller size of SMRs should translate to each reactor being less capital intensive; costs associated with manufacturing and construction are reduced as less material is required. Factory fabrication can mean quicker construction on site, which reduces the cost of labor and shortens the interval between construction of the reactor and when the reactor begins to generate electricity.

• Transportation of fuel may be minimized since the reactors can be fueled when built in a factory.

• In developing countries or rural communities that lack the electricity transmission infrastructure to support a large nuclear plant, SMRs provide a way for utilities to still have baseload power on the grid.

• Nuclear plant operators can gradually scale up the number of SMRs at a single plant location as demand grows, distributing cost evenly throughout the lifetime of a nuclear power plant.

• The small size of SMRs may allow them to be sited in places where a large baseload plant is not feasible or not needed. For example, SMRs have been considered as a power source for remote mines in Canada that cannot access the grid. This factor is also of great importance in large, power-short nations, such as Nigeria, Indonesia with 17,000-plus islands, and Brazil.

• SMRs will require significantly less land than do power plants with the same output that use wind, solar, biomass, or hydro power. NuScale, one of the leading SMR developers in the United States, estimates that SMRs require only 1% of the land area required for similar generation by other technologies.

• Because of their small size, SMRs can be located underground. This would make them less vulnerable to natural phenomena and destructive acts by man, either through carelessness or by intention.

[See Small Modular Reactors: Adding to Resilience at Federal Facilities, by Seth Kirshenberg, Hilary Jackler, and Jane Eun (at Kutak Rock LLP); and Brian Oakley and Wil Goldenberg (at Scully Capital Services, Inc.), December 2017].


Who Needs Small Modular Reactors?


In reality, SMRs will have wide-ranging use, not only in small or middle-sized power-short nations, but also in large countries with freshwater shortage but long coastlines. Take the case of India, for instance.


According to a report by India government planners, currently, 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress and about 200,000 people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water. The crisis is only going to get worse. By 2030, the country’s water demand is projected to be twice the available supply, implying severe water scarcity for hundreds of millions of people and an eventual ~6% loss in the country’s GDP.


As per a report of the National Commission for Integrated Water Resource Development of  MoWR [Ministry of Water Resources], India’s water requirement by 2050 in a high use scenario is likely to be a milder 1,180 BCM (billion cubic-meter), whereas present-day availability is 695 BCM. The total availability of water possible in country is still lower than this projected demand, at 1,137 BCM. [For more, see discussion of the national Composite Water Management Index, NITI Aayog, Government of India: June 14, 2018].


Over the years, India’s indiscriminate use of groundwater has been squarely blamed for this growing crisis. India has ambitious river-diversion plans to meet the demands of water-short areas. That plan has been hanging fire for decades. However, the river-diversion plan has its limitations, since India depends heavily on annual monsoon for replenishing its rivers and groundwater. Monsoon often fails to deliver the water Indians expect and need, to make the rivers run full. Such failures lead to widespread drought in large parts of the country.


On the other hand, India has a coastline of about 6100 km. It touches nine states. Desalination using the SMRs will provide India with a reliable amount of usable water, and over a period of time, will reduce its dependence on drawing out the groundwater and making the land fallow.


SMRs can bring similar benefits to developed nations, such as the United States. California, the most populous state in the Union, is water short. Under present circumstances, the fresh-water shortage in California will be permanent. Today, 75 percent of California’s fresh water supply originates in the northern third of the state, above Sacramento, while 80 percent of water users live in the southern two-thirds of the state.


In an average year, California gets about 240 BCM of fresh water from rain, snow and imports from other states. Roughly half of that is absorbed by native plants, evaporates, or flows into the sea. However, the actual amount varies widely from year to year because of nature’s uncertainties. California also has about 1350 km of coastline running from north to south. A well-designed deployment of SMRs along the coast would provide a reliable, steady flow of usable fresh water to Californians forever.


Puerto Rico


There are also other reasons why SMRs could be of great benefit to the developed nations. Take the case of Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States, located about 1850 km southeast of Florida. In essence, however, Puerto Rico is more like a colony of the United States. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but they have no elected representative serving in the U.S. Congress. Yet they are bound by its decisions, and those of the executive branch.


In 2017, Puerto Rico was battered by two strong hurricanes, Hurricane Irma in September 2017 and two weeks later, by Hurricane Maria. After these back-to-back storms, massive landslides and downed trees blocked mountain roads, cutting towns off from the rest of the island for weeks. Two years later, Puerto Rico’s infrastructure remains in shambles, partly because Washington has disbursed very little for the island’s rebuilding. While the failure to rebuild Puerto Rico is rooted in politics, what cannot be denied is that the island lies in the path of major hurricanes and the conventional development of infrastructure, such as the island’s power grid, in particular, will keep the island vulnerable forever. Puerto Rico’s power sector needs a total change, and SMRs would enormously help to usher in that change.


While the energy policy makers in the United States and elsewhere have fallen under the influence of advocates promoting wind, solar, tidal wave basins, and other such so-called renewables, the truth is that Puerto Rico is an ideal location for setting up SMRs. During a panel discussion at a National Clean Energy Week event in Washington in September 2017, former Energy Secretary Rick Perry addressed the issue squarely: “Wouldn’t it make abundant good sense if we had small modular reactors that literally you could put in the back of a C-17 [military cargo] aircraft, transport it to an area like Puerto Rico, push it out the back end, crank it up and plug it in? That could serve tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people very quickly. That’s the type of innovation that’s going on at our national labs. Hopefully, we can expedite that.”


Secretary Perry was not the only one who recognized how SMRs would provide a real, and not a cheap and ineffective thumb-tack solution, to the millions living in Puerto Rico who hate the miserable powerless condition in that island. Paul Murphy, managing director of Murphy Energy & Infrastructure Consulting LLC, is part of a project team funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to conduct a feasibility study as to whether advanced nuclear reactors could be a good solution to the island’s power problems.


Murphy also sits on the advisory board of the Nuclear Alternative Project (NAP), a volunteer-based organization composed of University of Puerto Rico alumni, in partnership with the United Nuclear Industry Alliance (UNIA), based in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico.


Murphy has pointed out that advanced nuclear reactors could be a viable, long-term solution to meet Puerto Rico’s needs in an island environment, which poses unique issues of suitability, durability and grid size. An Oct. 1, 2019 article, “Nuclear Advocates Receive DOE Funding for Exploratory Study on Puerto Rico,” posted on the website of Morning Consult, a global technology company that collects, organizes, and shares survey research data to inform decision making, quotes Murphy: “Windmills and solar panels don’t do well in hurricanes. Nuclear plants actually do.” For a territory with a vital tourism sector, he said, blanketing the island with wind and solar is untenable. He added that nuclear energy could help reduce Puerto Rico’s dependence on fossil fuels.


On March 15, 2018, the Civil Nuclear Trade Advisory Committee (CINTAC) of the U.S. Department of Commerce published a position paper, “Puerto Rico and the Case for Small Modular Reactors,” outlining the economic and export potential of SMRs for Puerto Rico. In its cover letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the group wrote: “The aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria has launched a movement to transform the island’s energy infrastructure into a more reliable, environmentally friendly and sustainable one. Today’s SMR designs present the technological advances specially tailored for energy challenges of island-type territories like Puerto Rico. For instance, some SMR designs are built underground which could also potentially increase the island’s energy security in future hurricane situations.”




It is evident from media reporting that more and more countries are now “seriously” thinking of investing time and money in developing SMRs. A September 17, 2019 article in World Nuclear News carries the announcement by a French consortium - composed of the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), EDF, Naval Group, and TechnicAtome - of its plans to build a small modular reactor they are calling the Nuward, in the 300-400 MW range, based on French pressurized water reactor (PWR) technology and an SMR design by Westinghouse. The consortium aims to complete the basic design between 2022 and 2025, with a demonstration unit by 2030. In other words, as of now, the announcement is more of a statement of intent but may bear fruit in another decade.


(To be concluded…) 

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top