Micro size but big ambitions for new reactors

15 June 2023

Much of the buzz around small and microreactors concerns grid-based electricity production, but the real win might come from elsewhere.

tates with energy-intensive industries, nuclear-friendly laws, and widespread social acceptance have all the makings to develop into a substantial market for micro-reactors. This is the conclusion of a new analysis from researchers at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), which concludes that the best markets are those that are cost competitive in electricity and heat, at least comparable in remote locations with diesel gensets or combined heat and power systems, and also have low-carbon sources including wind and solar, as well as energy storage.

Considering the relevant regulatory and legal frameworks, the report notes that most states have either removed barriers for microreactor deployment or established carbon-reduction goals that make advanced nuclear technologies more attractive. Other favourable factors include the fact that modular designs generally allow transportation to remote locations by road, barge or basic airstrips. They will likely benefit from deployment in areas where transport costs are very high and which are often subject to access restrictions for portions of the year due to weather, as well as areas which currently rely on coal but which could be repowered with microreactor technology whilst leaving much of the existing infrastructure in place.

Given the identified base case for favourable deployment it is perhaps no surprise that Alaska and Wyoming are highlighted as potential early adopters to deploy microreactors. In particular their need for remote power, mobile uses for energy in applications such as mining, and for refined products derived from locally-mined sources, make them a key location for use of the sustained energy that microreactors can deliver. Their remoteness and sparse populations also makes them potentially less problematic than other US states when it comes to the deployment of nuclear technology.

Earlier INL research identified other potentially lucrative markets for carbon-free, reliable electricity from microreactors of around 20 MWe. These include military installations, marine transport applications like cargo ships and disaster relief efforts. Regions with less reliable grids may also benefit from microreactor development to ensure industries like aluminium and chemicals production have access to consistent energy for industrial processes. In a similar vein, further opportunities for microreactors come from supporting renewable energy sources to maintain system reliability.

However, as the report makes clear, challenges to widespread deployment remain, in particular, uncertainties over the costs, waste and fuel. The authors note that it is important to promote common understanding of the barriers to market entry for both developers of the technology and end users to address these concerns.

Ultimately though, while the global requirement for clean and reliable power is vast, cost is the true arbiter of energy technology uptake. For microreactors to realise their potential, deployment means not one or two Alaskan mine sites but hundreds of units deployed across power-hungry sub-Saharan Africa, vast swathes of Asia, Eastern Europe and anywhere else that has a demand for heat and power. That means not just within remote communities and industrial sites but deeply embedded worldwide.

If the microreactor industry can find these markets and build units in large enough numbers – INL suggests at the scale of hundreds of reactors by 2040 and thousands by 2050 – modular advanced microreactors could realise the extraordinarily beneficial cost savings that standardisation, mass production and economies of scale bring. This is what is needed to make microreactors a viable option for far more than these niche energy needs. For while the commercial microreactor business may start in an Alaskan mining town, it could reach out to a whole new world.

By David Appleyard, Editor, Nuclear Engineering International

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