THE LATEST NORDIC NUCLEAR FORUM, which took place 5-7 February in Helsinki, Finland, highlighted the need to consider the flexibility of small modular reactors (SMRs), in the context of them replacing conventional, more expensive nuclear reactors.

There is interest in SMRs due to frequent delays in the construction schedules for large nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, new pressures are being placed on electricity production. To counter climate change renewable energy production has to increase, so the electricity grid will have to withstand greater fluctuations. Nuclear power will also need to have more flexibility in the future and nuclear experts suggest that small reactors are best able to respond to the challenge.

At European Union level, more nuclear power is likely to be needed to reach emissions reduction targets. But economic uncertainty and the potential for unforeseen disturbances to the power grid will require more flexibility from power generation sources, according to Massimo Garribba, director of the European Commission’s Nuclear Energy Department.

“Despite the high renewable energy targets, it must be underlined that the role of nuclear energy in the EU’s energy mix is significant”, Garribba told the conference.

“In the Commission, we think that the flexibility and variety of possibilities available to SMRs are an important factor here”, he added. While the choice of energy mix is one for each member state, the European Commission plays a role in overseeing the safety of nuclear power installations across the EU, as well as aspects of nuclear fuel supply and transportation in all EU member states.

The opportunity of small, serially produced reactors has been long discussed and there are moves towards development and commercialisation. For example, US company NuScale Power is striving for a strong European market presence, focusing its initial effort on the UK.

In addition to flexibility, proponents believe that SMRs’ strengths lie in a fast construction schedule, with capital cost and investment lead-times a fraction of that for a traditional nuclear power plant. SMRs may also serve as a district heating or processing unit, Garribba said.

No SMRs have yet been developed on a commercial scale anywhere in the world. However, NuScale Power has announced that it expects to have an operational SMR in Idaho in the USA by 2024. Canada also has an advanced SMR development programme and the UK government believes an initial SMR might be developed in the UK
by 2030.

Garribba also expressed concern that large nuclear power plants are no longer appropriate for the changing power generation landscape. “Smaller units will also be needed in the future due to the balance of the grid. Big is not necessarily beautiful here”, Riku Huttunen, the director general of the energy department at Finland’s economy ministry, told the conference.

The European Commission has therefore begun discussions with Member States and national authorities on the removal of bottlenecks in the development of SMRs. The EC is also planning to start EU-wide development projects aimed at increasing cooperation on the safety of small reactors in the near future, Garribba said.

“Nuclear power is disappearing – SMRs can change the whole conversation,” William Magwood, director general of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), told the conference. Magwood is a former commissioner at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and has led the NEA since September 2014.

Magwood also emphasised the importance of small reactors in his speech. He noted that according to a recent NEA report, the total price of electricity will double if the share of renewable power production in the total electricity mix approaches 75%.

“Nuclear power is an economically disappearing market because not all the costs to the electricity grid and society have been diverted to different forms of energy production, depending on the impact they cause,” Magwood said.

Such indirect costs include investments in power grid infrastructure and regulation, but also the impacts of fossil fuels if they are used to balance and back-up large-scale wind and solar power production.

The best way to eliminate this imbalance would be, according to Magwood, a sufficiently high carbon price, but it does not seem to be successful and may not even work politically.

“In many countries, this becomes expensive for most companies, while nuclear power safety still raises a lot of questions in many countries, so SMRs can become a game changer in the whole conversation,” Magwood said.

Kirill Komarov, first deputy director general of Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom, told the Forum that Russia has long experience of the series production of small reactors in icebreakers and submarines.

He said that Rosatom had recently launched a floating nuclear power plant in Murmansk in northern Russia. The floating nuclear power plant, Akademik Lomonsov, is being towed toward the northeast of Russia this summer (see separate article on pp.28-29).

Rosatom has export plans for similar plants in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa, he also told the conference. In addition to electricity generation, floating nuclear plants could be used in areas affected by drought for desalination of sea water.

New nuclear build in Finland

Leena Jylha, managing director of Finnuclear, said that, “even though there are no new applications yet, personally I believe there will be new nuclear builds [in Finland] after Olkiluoto 3 and Hanhikivi 1.”

“This is because we have the whole lifecycle well managed in Finland, meaning we have the solution for spent nuclear fuel and the underground nuclear fuel storage facility is under construction”, she said.

Olkiluoto 3 is the EPR being built in Finland by Siemens and Areva that is around nine years behind schedule. Hanhikivi 1 is a 1200MW Russian-designed plant that planned to be built in northern Finland by Rosatom for Finnish company Fennovoima. It is currently scheduled to start commercial operation in 2028. The start of construction of the unit has been delayed by five years due to the Finnish regulatory approval process and the need for better documentation from the Russian reactor supplier to the Finnish nuclear regulator.

Jylha said that all the existing nuclear power plants in Finland are fully operational, but at some point they will be shut down. She noted that while for Finland this seems far away, in Sweden some plants have already been retired.

In addition to Hanhikivi 1, in 2010 the Finnish parliament granted an approval in principle for Olkiluoto 4, but in the end that project was halted, she said.

“To reach the CO2 emission targets with regards to climate change, nuclear energy is definitely more and more important, together with renewables, energy efficiency, and energy storage,” Jylha said.

Huttunen said at the Helsinki conference that Oliluoto 3 is now only weeks away from being granted an operating licence by the Finnish government.

“The ministry could present a case for the operational licence to the state council in just a few weeks. Loading
of nuclear fuels can happen after this, so we expect full commercial operation to start early next year,” Huttunen told the conference. Huttunen also told the conference that operating licences for the two reactors at Fortum’s Loviisa site were also under consideration for renewal by the Finnish government. The Loviisa plant has a combined capacity of 1012MW and the two units can run until 2027 and 2030, respectively, under their current operating licences.

“Fortum is considering a further licence application. Either way the next government [following a general election in Finland in April] might address an application for either extended operation, or decommissioning of the facilities,” Huttunen said.

However, Huttunen also warned, like the other speakers at the conference, about the cost of new nuclear power plants and the threat that this poses to new nuclear construction in Europe and globally.

“The price of [nuclear] power plants has increased significantly and therefore the competitiveness of nuclear power has decreased. A new type of regulation or project management might be necessary to keep costs bearable,” he told the conference. 

Author information: Rumyana Vakarelska, Journalist covering the energy and environmental sectors