Thought Leadership

SMR Conference Outlines Challenges – and Solutions – for New Nuclear Technology

Category: News & Events
James Carter • November 30, 2018

I recently attended the international Generation IV and Small Modular Reactors (G4SR-1) conference in Ottawa, along with a “sold out” crowd of approximately 500 other attendees.

For me, the highlight of the conference was the rollout of “A Call to Action: A Canadian Roadmap for Small Modular Reactors.”

The roadmap is a comprehensive set of strategic recommendations to guide future actions needed by governments, industry, and other nuclear stakeholders to capitalize on Canada’s SMR opportunity. It was prepared by a steering committee composed of Canadian provincial governments, territorial governments, and power utilities interested in the potential for development, demonstration, and deployment of SMRs in Canada.

Other countries, including the U.S., would be well-served to follow Canada’s lead in advancing SMR technology, which this roadmap represents.

Conference presenters also highlighted the headway being made in SMR development as well as the risks facing the industry.

Dr. Jose Reyes, co-founder and chief technology officer of NuScale Power, shared his company’s progress on SMR development. He stated that the cost of commercializing – including designing, licensing, marketing, and supporting deployment of – NuScale’s first SMR is approaching US$1 billion and counting.

One speaker indicated that he is tracking over 120 SMR and advanced reactor (AR) technologies in development. Several speakers acknowledged that funding is not sufficient to support so many designs. Therefore, consolidation and attrition are likely.

Presenters discussed the impediments to funding new nuclear technology, including the long timeline for harvesting equity investments and achieving acceptable debt coverage. Funding is also threatened by the inherent risks, such as the uncertainty associated with deployment cost overruns and schedule delays.

But speakers also offered potential solutions to those funding challenges. Several AR and SMR developers have aligned with strategic partners (e.g. NuScale and Fluor) that bring funding, staying power, and credibility to the commercialization effort. Consider that utilities/owners would not likely engage with an entity that may not succeed in delivering a product or support a plant over decades of operation.

A case for public-private partnerships was also presented as a vehicle to help overcome the funding issue. Indeed, many foreign governments subsidize nuclear technology development, tipping the scales in their favor in the international nuclear power market.

Notwithstanding the development funding challenges, it’s clear that nuclear power is essential for effectively and economically dealing with greenhouse gas concerns. One conference session summarized an MIT study, “The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World,” which provided very convincing economic data supporting a significant role for nuclear power in the global energy supply.

Finally, niche markets for SMR and AR technologies were discussed. Most notable was the Canadian mining industry, for which one speaker described a significant demand for 10-20 MWe units to support mining operations. Mining companies are willing to enter into 20-year power purchase agreements at premium pricing to eliminate the need for and cost of fossil (diesel) generation in remote areas.

All in all, the event was an informative update on the current challenges and opportunities facing these new nuclear technologies. Citing the success of this year’s inaugural conference, organizers are contemplating holding the event annually.