There is no technology development more important to the future of the nuclear industry than widescale deployment of SMRs. Long promised, these designs do not represent a fad, they are completely integral to the future of nuclear energy and complementary to larger designs.

Stick around in the nuclear industry long enough and you are bound to become a cynic. Many join the industry as starry-eyed optimists and idealists, but over time – the looong timescale of nuclear policy and project developments – that spirit fades. Look at the big picture and ask yourself how much has really changed in the last 20 years? In many nuclear countries, and specifically Western ones, what you will see is a litany of premature plant closures and stalled new-build programmes.

At conferences, the industry comforts itself with stories of advanced technology messiahs, but where are they? Most seem to have got lost in the journey from paper to steel and concrete, or at best stuck at one government-funded demonstration unit. As for the newer reactor designs that have actually been constructed, overwhelmingly they are evolutions of large light water reactor technologies. Overwhelmingly the construction performance and numbers built have been underwhelming.

It is easy to become jaded and convinced that nothing will change in the nuclear industry, to become closed to the idea of it. But if enough folk get trapped in this fatalism then the industry will decay as surely as the radioactive isotopes it handles. Change is necessary, it is welcome, and of these potential changes none are more important to the future of nuclear than the development of SMRs. While the pathway to SMR deployment has been torturously long, the impacts stand to redefine the sector.

Take a moment to reflect on what SMRs really represent. We used to talk of nuclear technology developments primarily in terms of Gen IV reactors – molten salt, sodium-cooled fast spectrum, etc. Today, it is customary to at least start these conversations with a description of reactor size and potential applications. This simple change normalises nuclear and makes it understandable to a larger public, no longer solely the domain of scientists, engineers and nerds.

There is an ongoing debate about whether SMRs will ever be able to compete with large reactor designs, whether economies of factory production, easier financing and standardisation will ever be able to compensate for lost economies of scale. While this debate is valid it is a mistake to think there is a single answer. The factors influencing nuclear economics and construction success are different country by country. They include things such as the established industrial base, labour costs, regulatory approach, market structure, and much more. What’s true in the USA is unlikely to be true in Europe and certainly won’t be true in South Korea or African countries. Of these, market factors will probably have the largest impact on whether SMRs or large reactors are more competitive and become the focus in the near term.

This debate often misses something more fundamental. This is not an apples for apples comparison. SMRs promise to provide more than just grid-scale electricity. Their size and design allows them to be placed in new settings – next to industrial centres, in remote communities, on ships.

They can readily provide heat, hydrogen and motive force in addition to electricity. SMRs radically expand the market envelope of nuclear energy, and this is profoundly more important than the relative economics between large and small. What is most likely to determine the success of any given SMR design/designer is whether it successfully identifies a market niche, meets the requirements of customers and forms partnerships with a competent supply base.

The key universal benefit that SMRs offer is flexibility, not cost. Flexibility here defined in a broad sense and including application, siting, output (load following) and even flexibility of financing. People don’t expect a sports car to be cheaper per person mile travelled than a bus. It’s curious that this expectation exists for SMRs.

Individual SMR designs that promise to do everything whilst also being radically cheaper deserve scepticism. There is a hint of snake oil in the SMR space. This is natural and to be expected in a competitive start-up sector. More generally though, where industry scepticism towards SMRs used to make sense 10 or so years ago, it simply does not now. It frankly makes more sense to be sceptical of large reactor projects in Western countries than SMRs, given announcement after announcement of disappointing construction performance.

This remains true even in light of the cancellation of the NuScale and UAMP Carbon Free Power Project and the recent news that some other Western SMR starts-ups have recently had to scale back or change financial partners.

In the commercial-led approach to SMR technology deployment the path was always going to be bumpy. Consolidation is to be expected sooner or later. The question is whether governments take a hand in down-selecting certain promising designs and vendors, or just leave the emerging sector to struggle on.

And, for the avoidance of doubt – yes, we will need both large and small reactors in the coming decades. SMRs are inherently more complementary to large reactors than they are to be considered competition. Indeed, some visionaries have outlined a scenario where the deployment of SMRs allows companies (and countries) to regain the necessary nuclear competencies in a manner that doesn’t bet the farm, and that will eventually allow them to build large reactors efficiently again.

SMRs have clearly now become the buzzword in nuclear innovation and the badge under which advanced reactor technologies are expected to be researched and developed. While it is a bit silly to hit all technologies with an arbitrary 300 MW size limit and insist on an automated manufacturing approach, it also tolerable if it secures funding and allows progress to be made.

The other crucial innovation that SMRs unlock is in business models. Microreactors are especially noteworthy, with vendors proposing reactor leasing arrangements. The idea of sending an assembled and fuelled reactor to a site, plugging it in, using it for a while and then transporting it away – all whilst never operating/refuelling/maintaining it themselves – is clearly a tantalising one. Big tech especially is paying close attention.

SMRs bring the innovation to the nuclear industry and make it sexy again. But equally they demand innovation from other parts of the fuel cycle and the industry’s supporting bodies. This may now be the primary challenge standing in the way of successful SMR deployment. Regulators especially have proven slow and reluctant to approve crucial enabling features and certify novel designs. Even more disappointing has been the continued snail’s pace on international harmonisation and design certification.

In terms of fuel supply the lack of HALEU and facilities ready to produce this is a well-known bottle neck. But we also need to see the same culture of innovation emerge in the back end – in waste management, reprocessing and disposal – if the real potential of SMRs and a more flexible and adaptive nuclear sector are to be unleashed.

In case you missed it, SMRs are no longer future technology. They are part of the fabric of nuclear sector today. The SMR age officially began on 19 December 2019 when the twin reactors on the Akademik Lomonosov started providing electricity (and later heat) to Pevek. It was further cemented when the high temperature gas cooled reactors connected to the grid in Shidaowan. China and Russia have realised the SMR promise and are set to build more. As usual, other countries are struggling to catch up.

Maybe it’s that old idealism talking, but when those first Western SMR projects do spark up it should mark the end of the long nuclear stagnation in Europe and USA and unleash a new wave of nuclear energy development globally.

Author: David Hess, Senior VP, DeepGeo