Photo credit: NuScale

There are upwards of 70 small modular reactor (SMR) designs under investigation in 17 countries, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. That is a huge amount of global development activity, but the world needs commercial rollout if those reactor designs are to make a useful contribution to our future zero carbon electricity mix. How close are we to full scale deployment of SMRs?

Recently there has been good news in crossing what is often referred to as the ‘valley of death’ in technology commercialisation – the leap from development to commercial rollout.

First, that is because a pipeline is building of reactor designs that, crucially, are licensed by national regulatory authorities. In September 2020, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued Standard Design Approval for the NuScale SMR and in the next step the NRC invited comments on a rulemaking that would certify NuScale’s standard reactor design, which means that customers can move forward with plans to develop NuScale power plants. Comments closed on the rulemaking at the end of October.

Also, in October Kairos Power took a step on the same route when it announced that it had submitted the preliminary safety analysis report for its fluoride saltcooled, high-temperature reactor to the NRC as part of its application for a construction permit for the Hermes low-power demonstration reactor. The application to construct the test reactor at a site in Oak Ridge has now been docketed by the NRC and "barring unforeseen delays" staff expect environmental and safety reviews to be completed by September 2023.

The USA is not the only country moving forward. In Canada, Global First Power (GFP) has applied for a licence to prepare a site for its 15MWt Micro Modular Reactor (MMR) at Chalk River in Ontario and the application is in the technical review phase of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s (CNSC) licensing process. The UK’s Office for Nuclear Regulation, meanwhile, has modernised its Generic Design Acceptance (GDA) process to adapt it for advanced nuclear technologies. Rolls-Royce said its application to begin the GDA for its 470MWe small modular reactor has already been submitted, and the company hopes to be “in with regulators in January next year.” 

The second reason for the leap is that operating experience is being amassed from plant that have already passed licensing review and entered operation.

Russia’s Akademik Lomonosov floating nuclear power plant marked its first year in operation in May 2021. In September, startup was achieved for China’s HTR-PM, which began construction in December 2012. This is regarded as an industrial demonstration plant, and it has two reactor units driving a single 200MW turbine. Also in an advanced stage of construction is the 27MW Argentine CAREM (a prototype of a 150-300MW commercial design).

Opportunity and challenge

SMRs present an opportunity to the nuclear industry but it should not be forgotten that they also represent a new challenge. Despite the aims of replication and series build, the existing industry is built on a model of major infrastructure planning akin to an international airport or rail hub: sites are agreed and planned in collaboration with government, as is funding and financing. An industry model that sees scores of reactors built, often on new sites, requires a different approach.

That is clear in the licensing process that has already been applied to SMRs, and in some instances it challenges long-held assumptions about how nuclear should be designed and operated. For example, one requirement that had to be suspended for NuScale specified a dedicated control room and minimum number of operators for each nuclear unit – but the NuScale design would see an array of small reactors operated from one control room. That issue will arise in a different form when other SMR or micro reactor designs, some of which use remote operation, enter the licensing process.

Similarly, a new approach to site selection will also be required, on an industrial model that is appropriate for sites in the tens and hundreds rather than one or two per country. Regulators have to be ready to manage that issue, as we are seeing the real beginning of a ‘fleet’ approach to SMRs.

A few months ago NuScale Power took a step in this direction by signing memoranda of understanding with two Polish organisations that could open up a fleet of potential sites. One is based on power generation sites that will need to be repurposed: together with Oklahoma-based integrated energy company Getka Group and Polish energy company Unimot it is scoping coal-fired generation sites in Poland that could house SMRs.

GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, BWXT Canada Ltd and Poland-based Synthos Green Energy (SGE) have also signed a letter of intent to cooperate in deploying BWRX-300 SMR in Poland. SGE, together with its partners, wants to deploy at least ten BWRX-300 SMRs in Poland by the early 2030s.

John Hopkins, Chair and CEO of NuScale Power, said SMRs were “an ideal flexible clean energy solution to repurpose retiring coal fueled power plants and most importantly, retain and retrain the skilled power plant workforce already in place in these Polish communities.”

Similar arguments have been put forward in the USA for housing SMRs at sites where coal fired stations are closing or have already closed.

In addition to a skilled workforce such sites also are likely to have other key resources – grid connections, water supply and civil infrastructure – that could potentially reduce the capital cost of installing SMRs.

Similarly, another US SMR developer, TerraPower. is discussing plans to build its first-of-a-kind Natrium demonstration project at the site of a retiring coal plant in Wyoming. The design includes a molten salt energy storage system and it is being developed with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) and engineering and construction partner Bechtel.

A second route to securing sites would see SMRs take the place of small gas or diesel installations. This is of particular interest in remote or otherwise inaccessible sites where installing conventional power and transporting fuel supplies is complex and expensive. In practice, such sites help make the economics of early SMR units look favourable compared with current solutions.

Russia’s Akademik Lomonosov floating nuclear power plant, for example, is said to be planned for this purpose. Its two 35MWe KLT40S SMR units can power a city of about 100,000 people and provide heat alongside that can be used for local heat customers or for seawater desalination (producing up to 240 000 cubic metres of drinking water per day).

NuScale has also seen such remote sites as a potentially fruitful. It has joined forces with Polish copper and silver miner KGHM and with PBE Molecule to provide power to the mining company’s production plants. This co-operation would see the development and construction initially of four SMRs and potentially up to a dozen (with installed capacity of around 1GW).

What’s the in-service date?

These collaborations envisage 2030 as the target in-operation date. “The changes in the climate are forcing us to take decisive actions. We are already feeling the impact, including in a financial sense, connected among others with the increases in energy prices. The construction of small nuclear reactors by 2030 is a solid declaration and an element our energy transformation. We are pioneers in Poland, as we expect that the first of our nuclear power plants will come online in 2029,” said Marcin Chludziński, President of the Management Board of KGHM Polska Miedź SA.

The UK is looking at a similar timeframe. Tom Greatrex is chief executive of UK nuclear lobby group the Nuclear Industry Association. In a side meeting on new nuclear at the Conservative Party’s annual conference he said there were still a number of decisions that had to be made by the Rolls-Royce consortium and SMRs were “Not able to be deployed in the next few years”. He added, “We may have the first in a decade but they are not available to be deployed tomorrow”.

In the USA, NuScale said it is “actively engaged with our manufacturing partners and will be ready to deliver the first NuScale power modules to a client in 2027”. It said that it expects the first NuScale 12-module reference plant to be fully operational in Idaho by 2030, with the first of 12 modules online by 2029 as part of Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems Carbon Free Power Project (CFPP),

In an interesting side note, Chludziński also said SMRs will “substantially reduce the costs of operating our business,” raising the possibility that it could sell its excess to become a power supplier. “We plan to generate power commercially in order to assist in the green transformation of Poland and bring down costs for the average household,” added Chludziński.

Models in which industry builds its own power generation and trades the excess have been commonly employed but they have been based on gas or renewables. It is an indication of how the potential industrialisation of nuclear, using SMRs, could revolutionise the sector.

Photo: Mock-up of a NuScale nuclear reactor being transported on a truck (Source: NuScale Power LLC)