Energy Outlook – Small-Scale Nuclear Power

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by Royce Lowe

Rolls-Royce is evaluating potential sites in the UK, specifically England and Wales, for its Small Modular Reactor (SMR) nuclear power concept, which it claims can provide the nation with a net-zero-carbon option for energy independence. 

The SMR concept centers on low-cost, factory-built nuclear power stations with at least 440 MW of electrical energy-generating capacity. The plants’ compact scale would allow easier, lower-cost manufacture of the SMRs at existing production sites, and transported to the installation sites.

Rolls-Royce is looking at an initial construction of four SMR plants, each with an estimated cost of $2.45 billion (£2 billion.) The regulatory approval process has been initiated, and is due for completion in mid-2024. RR had the backing of businesses and the UK government in 2020 to establish a series of SMRs in Britain by 2030. The government, at the time, provided $546 million in funding in 2021 for Rolls-Royce to advance the nuclear-energy concept. 

The present government, however, is not fully committed to the SMR program. Financial support is needed for the project along with regulatory clearance. It is more than likely that the government will fall in line with the project in the not-too-distant future.  Britain draws 13% of its electricity from nuclear power plants, most of which are nearing the end of their lifecycles. 

The U.S., meanwhile, is moving ahead somewhat faster with its SMR program. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently certified the design for the country’s first-ever small modular nuclear reactor, and established a rule allowing the so-called “NuScale reactor” to be used within the U.S. beginning on Feb. 21, 2023. This is a green light for companies to construct reactors that require less space, capital, and labor than their conventional counterparts. 

The design is courtesy of Oregon-based NuScale Power, which has been working to certify a small modular reactor (SMR) design since 2007. At the NuScale’s core are up to 12 power modules, or natural circulation light water reactors that each consist of a reactor core, a pressurizer, and two steam generators housed in steel. Each of these power modules generates 160 megawatts of thermal output (MWt) and 50 megawatts of electrical output (MWe). The lower portion of each power module is submerged in a below-ground pool that functions as a heat sink, thus precluding the need for emergency diesel generators for power outages, or water injectors to cool the reactor after an accident. 

Proponents of SMRs argue that these factors, along with SMRs’ alleged safety benefits, make designs like the NuScale vital to the country’s increased efforts to attain carbon-free energy. SMRs rely more on passive safety systems and built-in leak-prevention mechanisms than do conventional reactors, which means there’s less room for human error in the case of an emergency. SMRs’ smaller dimensions means they’re less susceptible to damage during earthquakes and other natural disasters. The NuScale, in particular, surrounds its power modules with 4.6-meter-wide steel vessels, which can withstand far greater pressure than the 40-meter-wide concrete containment vessels found in the average power plant.

Not all are in favor. A Stanford University study from last year found that SMRs will probably add fuel to existing nuclear waste concerns. A conventional nuclear power plant produces radioactive waste that has to be isolated for hundreds of thousands of years. SMRs could end up increasing the volume of this waste “by factors of 2 to 30,” requiring more management and disposal than the U.S. currently has plans for. Some scientists feel that the waste problem alone negates SMRs’ other benefits. 

In any event, the NRC’s new rule will allow nuclear power plant operators to pursue construction of the NuScale reactor and apply for a corresponding license with the NRC next month. Because the reactor is officially certified for use, third parties will not be able to legally challenge individual license applications. NuScale, meanwhile, is beginning the approval process for a larger SMR design capable of 77 MWe per module.

Having reported last month on the excellent job Sophie Brochu is doing as the head of Hydro-Québec, we can report this month that she will leave the job this coming April 11. Brochu, one of Canada’s most prominent female business executives, will leave after three years in the job, the company said Tuesday. “Sophie’s contribution — marked by her human approach, strong communication skills and vast experience in the energy sector — will stand the test of time,” Chair Jacynthe Côté said in a statement.

Within Quebec, tensions had been building between Brochu and the government of Premier Francois Legault over how to deploy Quebec’s vast renewable-power capacity as a lure for industrial development in the province of 8.8 million people. Brochu had said in media interviews that she was concerned about putting too much pressure on energy supply. 

“I spoke with Sophie Brochu and we share the same goal, to ensure that Hydro-Quebec evolves in an orderly fashion for the benefit of all Quebeckers,” Legault said in October after appointing Pierre Fitzgibbon to an expanded role as minister of economy, innovation, and energy. 

In her statement, Brochu made no reference to disagreement with the government.

Author profile: Royce Lowe, Manufacturing Talk Radio, UK and EU International Correspondent, Contributing Writer, Manufacturing Outlook. ν