IAEA discusses opportunities and challenges of microreactors

4 May 2021

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on 26-29 April hosted a Technical Meeting on the Status, Design Features, Technology Challenges and Deployment Models of Microreactors. The meeting united experts from 13 countries, the European Commission and the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. “We are trying to play a double role – the role of advisor and, at the same time, we must care for a very water-tight system of safety and security,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi. Safety and security “go hand in hand, and by addressing these issues early on, we can assimilate them.”

The event included a panel discussion on the opportunities and challenges of microreactors led by Grossi and former US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Co-Chair and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and Founding CEO of the Energy Futures Initiative. They agreed that international collaboration is vital in developing and deploying new nuclear power technologies, such as small modular reactors (SMRs) including microreactors (MRs), and that the IAEA is the natural place for this collaboration to take place.

“To have any possibility of success in reaching something like net zero goals, we need a decade of supercharged innovation across low-carbon technologies,” Moniz said. In terms of MRs, there are important applications and the important role of the IAEA is multifaceted in advancing those applications and in working early on to look as issues, such as security and non-proliferation, he added.

MRs, which have smaller footprints than other SMRs, will be well suited for regions inaccessible to clean, reliable, resilient and affordable energy, including remote areas where large electricity grids are not in place or delivery of fossil fuels is cumbersome. “There is a very interesting niche for microreactors […] clearly very focused, very effective at addressing with laser precision, problems that would otherwise be more complicated or less climate efficiently solved with other technologies,” Grossi explained. MRs are designed for high operational performance and reliability and enhanced transportability, while also being economically competitive. Furthermore, MRs could serve as a backup power supply in emergency situations or replace power generators that are often fuelled by diesel, for example, in rural communities or remote businesses.

More than a dozen MRs – from heat-pipe cooled reactors to high temperature gas cooled reactors and liquid metal cooled fast reactors – are under development in several countries, including Canada, the Czech Republic, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. In the US and Canada, “we count about 14 technologies being developed for microreactors,” Moniz said. “A lot of this has been funded in the private sector, but now we are seeing tremendous interest, as well, from the Department of Energy in the United States and the equivalent authorities in Canada, where there is strong interest in addressing issues, like Arctic applications for communities and mining.” He added: "Early deployment in North America will likely happen through public-private partnerships. Reactors will be produced in factories and shipped to locations of use. This can lead to a major cost reduction and increased economic competitiveness," Moniz explained.

The IAEA recently launched a project to investigate the coordinated use of nuclear power and renewables in hybrid energy systems. Last year, the IAEA also initiated a project on the economic appraisal of SMR projects, including MRs, to evaluate business models and consider potential end-users and revenue streams. In response to requests from countries and international organisations, the IAEA is developing an Agency-wide platform on SMRs, inclusive of MRs, to coordinate support related to all aspects of SMR development, deployment, oversight and their electric and non-electric applications, such as use in district heating and desalination systems. The Agency is also conducting a review of the applicability of IAEA Safety Standards to new advanced reactors, including MRs. “The IAEA will try to play an even more active role. We are everybody’s hub in nuclear. We will provide for technologists, regulators, practitioners, conceptualisers to come together,” Grossi said.

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