Minerals Council of Australia looks at SMRs

7 October 2021

Small modular reactors in the Australian context (Source: Minerals Council o Australia)The Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) on 6 October released a new report, “Small Modular Reactors in the Australian Context”, which offers an overview of SMRs, their potential role in Australia and likely operating costs.

Even with conservative assumptions that include higher than expected construction costs, SMRs could be Australia’s lowest cost 24/7 zero emission power source that underpins reliable and secure electricity supplies, the report says. 

The report looks at three advanced SMR designs that are currently undergoing regulatory approval – NuScale’s Power Module, GE-Hitachi’s BWRX 300 and Terrestrial Energy’s Integral Molten Salt Reactor. It points to the enhanced safety features and potential uses of SMRs.

The MCA stresses the need to consider zero emission nuclear energy, along with carbon capture use and storage, and renewable energy to decarbonise the economy. It believes SMRs offer part of the solution to addressing this requirement. Australia has a third of the world’s uranium reserves and its uranium mining sector, supplies about 10%   of global demand. However nuclear power is banned at both federal and state level. “Australia should take advantage of growing international interest in nuclear energy and look to expand its already significant uranium sector,” MCA says.

The 36-page report  describes SMRs as “power generators of typically 300MWe or less that use nuclear fission to provide clean, fully reliable heat and power, on-grid or off-grid”. In Australia they could connect directly to the existing grid and could, be used to power regions or independently supply mines due to their compact size, fuel density and ability to air cool. As to costs, the report says: “Robust estimates suggest that by 2030 and beyond, SMRs could offer power to grids from $64-$77 MWh, depending on size and type.”

“Now that Australia has committed to building nuclear-powered submarines, Australia will need to develop the skills and expertise to support the new fleet. This capacity could also support the deployment of SMRs,” the report notes. “The new SMR designs are being commercialised to provide low cost 24/7 zero emission heat and power. With smaller size, lower unit costs and passive and inherent safety features, SMRs have the potential to deploy more quickly in a broader range of markets.”

It adds: “Positioned as multi-purpose devices in our energy systems, SMRs are a benefit multiplier on the road to net zero in a warmer world.” It estimates that the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) of SMRs deployed in Australia would be between $64/MWh and $77/MWh. “If realised, this would make it the cheapest 24/7 zero emission power source available in Australia.”

SMR benefits currently 'inaccessible' to Australia

However, the benefits of SMRs “are inaccessible to Australia under current policy settings”. While policies can, ultimately, be changed quickly, the acquisition and deployment of new technologies cannot be rushed. “In capabilities, Australia has a reasonable foundation for future use of SMRs. But serious work is ahead if an industry capability is to be achieved. Global developments in SMRs are swiftly overtaking the Australian status of ‘watching brief’ expressed in the 2019 Energy White Paper. A pivot will be required, from ‘watching brief’ to roadmaps and action plans if we are to have a timely inclusion of these solutions in our energy mix.”

The report concludes: “In the Australian context, it is openly acknowledged that this is a journey of several decades, demanding a dynamic, whole-of-system roadmap that must be resilient to change across a period of multiple uncertainties, and draw upon a diverse technology mix.” Given likely  changes in the economic, trade, security, policy and technology environments, “enhancing Australia’s optionality for low-carbon energy sources represents critical risk management”.

Even if today’s estimates on time and cost prove premature, it appears likely that SMR nuclear will have a substantial place in a lowest-cost decarbonised economy, particularly accounting for the requirements for industrial heat, electrification of transport, and production of fresh water and synthetic fuels. “The commercial availability of these technologies to Australia will widen the road to that decarbonised future.”

However Australia cannot wait until globally available price evidence is beyond uncertainty. “Deploying nuclear power technologies requires a national uplift in competencies and capabilities that a country retains from that point forward.” That journey might be accelerated for a nation with established capacity such as Australia. “Considering the sustained progress in the development of SMRs, that journey should arguably be initiated sooner rather than later.”

Finally, the report notes: “Early actions that are low-cost and no regrets can create greater optionality in the energy transition and widen the availability of decarbonising technologies in future. This will avoid playing catch-up, as competitive advantage in critical sectors moves towards nations as diverse as Canada to Rwanda that have already achieved, or are actively establishing, the necessary conditions for SMR deployment.”

Photo: Cover of Small modular reactors in the Australian context (Source: Minerals Council o Australia)

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