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Water Today Title February 21, 2024
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Small Modular Reactors Accelerate Nuclear Energy Initiatives

Nuclear energy produced by small modular reactors and microreactors, which can be easily installed and relocated, are gaining traction across the world according to a Cleantech Group report

“Certain SMR models work like conventional pressurized light water nuclear reactors, but are smaller, allowing them to be partially built in one location and shipped to another. Such reactors offer a virtually carbon free, stable, baseload energy alternative to renewables, such as solar and wind, and have distinct advantages in certain settings especially in regions with limited wind and solar.” -- Cleantech Group report

Interview with Zainab Gilani, Energy and Power Associate with Cleantech Group

By Suzanne Forcese

WT: Please introduce yourself and your role with Cleantech Group

Gilani: I am an Energy and Power Associate with Cleantech Group, which is a research-driven company. Since 2002 Cleantech Group has been an authority on global cleantech helping corporates, public sector, investors and others, identify, assess, and engage with the innovative solutions and opportunities that are related to the world’s massive and growing environmental and climate challenges.

My role is in engaging with various innovators in the space of small modular reactors (SMRs) and advanced nuclear to understand new technologies and potential applications.

WT: Why are you focusing on SMRs?

Gilani: Global energy demands are expected to increase dramatically over the next few years. For decades, experts suggested estimates that 2050 could require twice or triple the energy generation we produce today. But what will bridge the gap to meet these needs? Even if we were to exclusively rely on wind and solar for

decarbonized power, there would still be challenges with storage and transmission. Certain use cases would also require consistent stable baseload power and cannot rely on intermittent sources like wind and solar.

Nuclear power plays a significant role in getting to net-zero goals and providing customers with ways to generate power onsite, however, there are known challenges. Nuclear power’s popularity fluctuates with opponents citing high capital expenditures, hazardous waste production, and storage and licensing timelines.

Advanced nuclear, small modular reactor (SMR), and microreactor developers are creating solutions that overcome many of the traditional challenges of nuclear power.

WT: Before we discuss the space of small modular reactors, please give our viewers a brief 101 on what nuclear power is.

Gilani: Nuclear power is created when larger atoms, usually uranium-235 or plutonium-239 are split and undergo a fission reaction to become smaller atoms. Heat is released in the process. This heat can then be captured to produce steam in most pressurized water reactors to spin a turbine and generate electricity.

WT: Please comment on the role of nuclear power for a net zero world.

Gilani: At COP28 more than 20 countries made a statement to advance a goal to triple nuclear energy capacity by 2050. It is widely acknowledged that renewables are needed to achieve carbon neutrality and keep warming under 1.5°C. For hard to decarbonize sectors in industry nuclear can play a pivotal role. Applications can include providing power to data centers, construction sites, metals manufacturing, chemical production, district heating and desalination.

WT: Approximately what percent of the world is currently lit up by atomic power?

Gilani: According to the IEA, nuclear power provides 10% of global electricity generation. Roughly 8GW of new nuclear capacity was created in 2022 but according to the IEA Net Zero Scenario state there will have to be at least 32GW of new nuclear by 2030. (IEA) According to the IEA, nuclear power provides 10% of global electricity generation. Roughly 8GW of new nuclear capacity was created in 2022 but according to the IEA Net Zero Scenario state there will have to be at least

32GW of new nuclear by 2030. (IEA)

WT: The Government of Canada website (Canada Energy Regulator) states that Canada ranked 6th in the world, producing 3.9% of the world's total nuclear energy output. With a large base in Ontario, nuclear power comprises 15% of nuclear generation in Canada.What other countries are in the lead?

Gilani: China installed two large reactors in 2022 and will continue to accelerate new deployments for large and small reactors (IEA). China is aiming to produce 10% of their electricity from nuclear by 2035 (Reuters).

France is looking to also construct 6 new reactors to support their goal of generating 10% of their electricity from nuclear. (IEA)

Poland, due to lack of reliable wind and solar, is also actively looking to use nuclear to decarbonize their energy mix. At least six new SMR power plants have been in approved in Poland with the country being an avid supporter and partner for multiple SMR innovators. (WNN)

WT: Nuclear energy produced by SMRs are gaining traction across the world according to the Cleantech Report. Please describe what SMRs are and how the technology works.

Gilani: Small Modular Reactors are essentially smaller versions of nuclear reactors that can be prefabricated to bring down costs and reduce time to build. Many small modular reactors are essentially smaller versions of light water pressurized reactors as is the case for various models including Last Energy, GE Hitachi, Rolls-Royce and Nu-Scale. Most have outputs under 300MW. These are Gen III reactors.

Then there are Gen IV reactors. These usually involve a new reactor design, fuel source or coolant. Types of Gen IV reactors include Liquid Metal Fast Reactors, Molten Salt Reactors, and High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactors. Some use HALEU fuels (High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium), instead of standard LEU (Low-Enriched Uranium) fuels. These include companies like X-Energy, Kairos Power, Terra Power and various others who are working on developing partnerships and support domestic supply chains for HALEU.

WT: What are the applications?

Gilani: There are various applications for nuclear power and small modular reactors. Some are standard that are already being addressed which include district heating, desalination, grid and utility baseload power generation. Others can be more specific. For developers of microreactors, reactors that produce outputs under 20MW, like Nano Nuclear, Radiant, Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation and others there may be more specific applications that can address and specifically replace diesel generators.

These specific applications can include construction sites, data centers, and other various industrial processes. High temperature gas cooled reactors like X-Energy are also developing reactors that can reach incredibly high temperatures between 600-900°C. This is valuable for manufacturing and industrial processes that require high heat like steel and hydrogen production. X-Energy has announced a partnership with Dow to demonstrate this at one of their sites in Texas.

WT: What are the advantages of SMRs?

Gilani: -24/7 carbon free baseload power that has the potential to achieve lower LCOE costs than traditional nuclear developments.

Small modular reactors and microreactors provide several benefits when compared to traditional nuclear power plants. These advantages include smaller land footprints, enhanced safety mechanisms, lower costs, and shorter lead times. Costs for SMRs vary, but estimates suggest that depending on the size, smaller reactors can cost between $50M for microreactors to $3B for larger units.

WT: What are the challenges?

Gilani: Key challenges involve licensing new reactor designs, going through long regulatory procedures, securing customers, executing projects on time and on budget. For reactors that require HALEU fuels, securing HALEU fuel will be a challenge as commercial supplies are produced in Russia. The IRA has allocated $700M to support domestic HALEU fuel development.

WT:Waste disposal remains a concern according to the Cleantech report. Can you comment please.

Gilani: There are companies like Newcleo, Naarea, and Moltex that are developing solutions using spent fuel as a primary fuel source for their reactors. Studies have varied on the projected estimates and volumes of nuclear waste created by SMRs.

One study conducted at Stanford University suggested that substantially more waste could be produced while another joint study by Argonne and Idaho National suggests that SMR nuclear waste is fairly similar to the volumes produced by traditional nuclear reactors. (Utility Dive)

WT: Moving forward in the SMR space, please comment on the vision.

Gilani: With stable, on-site power, SMRs can be deployed in areas where grid or transmission infrastructure is limited or unavailable.

Still, SMRs and even smaller “micro” reactors face challenges. Relatively high CAPEX costs, long licensing timelines, supply chain concerns, safety issues, and disposal of nuclear waste, among other things, require efficient solutions.

There are multiple use cases for SMRs. Larger projects will have to prove they can compete with renewables on cost, and that builds can be completed on time and on budget, while other SMR applications may be more niche to displace expensive incumbent solutions like diesel generators.

Innovation remains the key driver, with Gen IV reactors advancing the case for SMRs across multiple fronts, including cost and safety. The fourth-generation technology further shrinks the size of reactors, while also raising performance benchmarks.


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