SMRs & sustainable development goals

22 June 2023

SMRs are all set to help society meet a raft of UN sustainable development goals and a whole new range of nuclear applications. Their roll out also means lots more transports of radioactive materials and growth in the global nuclear transport network.

Above: The Akademik Lomonosov is a Floating Nuclear Power Plant

We are all aware of the environmental crisis that the planet is facing. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) No.13 ‘Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts’ is just one of the SDG’s that nuclear power can play a vital role in achieving. Widespread adoption of nuclear power to replace fossil fuels must be progressed if we are to achieve the reductions in CO2 emissions set out in SDG13. Nuclear can also play a key role in achieving the other UN SDG’s too, in particular:

  • Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG6)
  • Affordable and Clean Energy (SDG7)
  • Sustainable cities and communities (SDG11)
  • Responsible consumption and production (SDG12)
  • Climate action (SDG13)

In fact, global adoption of nuclear power will provide the energy security and reliability that will enable all 17 SDGs to be achieved.

Many countries have renewed their interest in nuclear power and they are looking at how to adopt nuclear energy to best fit with the needs of their communities and industry.

Traditionally, large nuclear sites with high-capacity nuclear plants have been used to generate electricity for national networks. This will continue as it has certain advantages, such as site licensing, and where the national electricity grids are well established and efficient. Alongside this technology, the development of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) has been gaining pace.

SMRs offer many benefits of their own. They are built in factories using production-line methods that reduce costs and allow scalability. Factory fabrication also provides an environment that facilitates quality control and the introduction of new manufacturing techniques thorough continual learning. The SMR’s are constructed in modules that are then taken to the site of operation where they are assembled. Modular characteristics allow flexibility to scale up to meet energy demands by adding further modules. This could be for providing regional energy needs or for a specific industry requirement such as steel or cement production.

As well as land-based, SMRs can be sited on floating platforms. This is nothing new, between 1968 and 1975 a small reactor, installed on a converted ship, provided electricity to the Panama Canal region.

The Akademik Lomonosov is a Floating Nuclear Power Plant operated by Rosatom. It is moored in Pevek, Chukotka, Russian Federation, where it has provided district heating and electricity since 2019. This is the first of a series of future FNPPs planned by Rosatom.

Other companies are planning similar FNPP ventures, providing electricity or thermal energy to communities and industrial applications. This includes using the energy for hydrogen production. Hydrogen, and hydrogen-derived alternative fuels, can be used to replace fossil fuels used in industry and transport. SMRs can also be used for desalination of sea water to provide a reliable and sustainable source of fresh water.

FNPP can also be of benefit to Small Island Developing States (SIDS) as they can be easily deployed and do not require extensive use of land resources.

SMRs can be used in disaster relief too. A containerised SMR can be rapidly deployed to an area that has been hit by a natural disaster where it can replace damaged infrastructure. An SMR could power a field hospital and other humanitarian aid projects.

New nuclear technology is also opening opportunities that will see nuclear reactors replace diesel engines on ocean-going ships. Until now, nuclear powered ships have been largely restricted to military and state operated vessels using PWR-type nuclear reactors. While these types of reactors are well suited to military needs, they present challenges for commercial use such as non-proliferation and emergency planning zone requirements. These restrictions can be removed by the adoption of new reactor technology such as molten salt reactors and heat pipe reactors.

Development of SMR technology will see changes in the nuclear fuel cycle. The fuel used in many of these new designs will require different transport and packaging considerations. Some SMR designs do not require refuelling for the entire life of deployment, after which the SMR will need returning to the factory for recycling or redeployment.

With increased SMR production the global transport network will also grow, meaning more movements of nuclear material to more locations.

Author: Simon Chaplin, WNTI Maritime and Security Specialist

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