Thought Leadership

Is Now the Time for Small Modular Reactors?

Category: Thought Leadership
James Carter • August 20, 2018

Since scientists discovered that nuclear fission could create controllable energy in the late 1930s, the world has known that the technology contained a great deal of potential.

While the first use of nuclear energy was for war purposes, focus on the peaceful creation of energy began in earnest after World War II, during the early 1950s.

In the U.S., the first commercial pressurized water reactor, designed by Westinghouse, went online in 1960. In other countries, different nuclear power generation technologies were also seeing success: a boiling water graphite channel reactor in the Soviet Union, a fast-neutron reactor in Kazakhstan, and the CANDU – a Canadian design that used natural uranium fuel and heavy water.

The development of significant commercial nuclear power generation capacity in the 60s, 70s and 80s is remarkable. Essentially, the effort started with a blank sheet of paper, limited supply chain infrastructure, developing engineering standards, and evolving regulatory requirements that mandated design modifications as projects were being built.

The science was reasonably well understood but commercializing the technology into a safe and reliable source of electric generation was a substantial and challenging accomplishment. And still, these early units worked. In fact, they worked well; many continue to operate safely, reliably and economically.

Between 1969 and 1989, 100 nuclear units were placed into service in the U.S. – a feat that seems out of reach today unless a disruptive change occurs. Such a change may be just around the corner.

The early nuclear power building boom existed for a reason. Nuclear energy’s unique value proposition was proven: it was (and remains) a safe energy source, able to produce electricity for long periods of time without re-fueling. As an extra bonus today, nuclear power is clean and carbon-free – an obvious mitigating factor for atmospheric pollution and climate change that has become a global challenge.

Public concerns over nuclear safety are without factual basis. The safety record of nuclear power is remarkable, but unheralded. Modus’ Eric Gould recently pointed out the relative safety of nuclear generation. No member of the American public has ever been injured or killed by a nuclear accident in the entire 50+ years of U.S. commercial nuclear power.

Concerns remain about disposal and storage of waste. However, all of the used nuclear fuel generated in every nuclear plant in the past 50 years would fill a football field to a depth of less than 10 yards, and 96% of this “waste” can be recycled. Used fuel is currently being safely stored. In addition, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the equivalent scientific advisory panels in every major country support geological disposal of such wastes as the preferred, safest method.

So, what’s in store for nuclear power?

The future of nuclear

Today, 31 countries operate nearly 450 nuclear reactors, and 16 of those countries get more than one-fourth of their power from nuclear.

The nuclear power industry has not been without its problems. While nuclear plants are reliable and cost-effective to operate, the nuclear industry has been challenged by many of the same cost and schedule problems that plague large capital projects in other industries. (For a discussion regarding nuclear cost and schedule management, see my four-part “Learning from the Past” series.)

Every good technology evolves. And today, we have experience, expertise, and motivation to mitigate many of nuclear’s most pressing issues.

One current innovation is the small modular reactor (SMR). Where today’s reactors are designed to generate about 1000 MW of power, SMRs are designed to produce between 10 and 300 MW, which makes their siting and use much more flexible. SMRs combine the traditional benefits of nuclear technology with being quicker and cheaper to build and operate, with significant improvements in safety.

SMRs can employ light water as a coolant or use other non-light water coolants such as a gas, liquid metal, or molten salt. They are built in factories, rather than “stick-built” on-site. SMRs answer some of the safety perceptions (however misguided) of the current large-scale nuclear plants, relying on passive systems to safely shut down the reactor in the event of any operational problem.

Presently, according to the IAEA, 11 countries have SMR projects in development. NuScale Power, Inc. is one of the leaders in commercializing this technology. It’s on track to deploy the first SMR in the U.S. Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems is expected to build a NuScale plant in less than ten years.

The long-term outlook for the SMRs will depend very much on their ability to live up to their cost projections by delivering a successfully operating plant on time and on budget. The first several units will likely dictate the direction of the industry.

To thrive, this new technology needs appropriate sites, local and regional demand for electricity, qualified generation developers and owners, favorable government policies, a reasonable licensing process, and considerable developmental funding.

Canada is quickly becoming a leader in SMR development, as SMRs can bring carbon-free generation to remote areas in need of electricity. Canadian National Laboratories is opening its doors as an innovation hub for SMR developers, and major Canadian utilities OPG, Bruce Power and NB Power are looking to SMRs as the next additions to their existing nuclear fleets.

In my next blog post, I’ll take a deeper dive into why this country in particular may hold the key to SMR success.