This was an on-line event organised by Nuclear Engineering International bringing together a collection of speakers to provide updates on the development of, and potential for, small and advanced reactors.
The website opened with a picture of a conference centre with signs to various “places” which you could enter with a click. Entering the auditorium showed a timetable for the conference and allowed the user to listen to the current talk. After the event all presentations were available to listen to again. The Exhibition Hall allowed you to read or download publicity material and watch promo videos from a number of developers of SMRs. The Networking Lounge allowed you to read and join a number of text threads with representatives of the Companies involved.
This was a brave, and very welcome attempt, to recreate the functionality of a conference. It couldn’t provide the impromptu chats in the queue for a cup of tea, which are a vital part of conferences in the real world, nor recreate the sensation of sitting in an uncomfortable chair wishing the tea break was nearer while trying to concentrate on a talk. I admit to doing other things, such as catching up on shredding old documents, while listening to talks.
We live in an interesting time where there are limited funds for investment, a growing need for energy, a growing urgency to be more careful with the planet we call home and a lack of consensus on the way forward. Candidate solutions for the future include greater energy efficiency, reduced per-capita consumption, renewable energy solutions with solar and wind being the main growth areas, and more nuclear power. Within nuclear power there is competition between ever larger and more complex reactor systems, large but “simplified” reactors, and smaller reactor systems.
This conference was about the small reactors, seen by many as the solution to the “too big” problem with full sized reactor systems. One stated advantage are that smaller cores make less demand on the engineering of large pressure vessels and containment buildings. The control and safety systems can be bought closer, even into the pressure vessel, and a greater reliance can be put on passive accident management systems. But the unique selling point is the contention that these reactors can be produced, either as a number of modules or complete, in factories, shipped to site by road, plugged in and they are off. This considerably reduces the construction risks and build time resulting in a quicker achievement of a positive cash flow. The reactors are less powerful but it is easy to line up multiple reactors to give higher outputs while the smaller output makes them suitable in areas that cannot be served by 1000+ MW units.
It was explained that the UK SMR reuses existing design and technology but the innovation is chiefly working out how to factory build it. The system is “low cost, deliverable and investable” with 80% of UK content. The next step, which starts this year, is GDA. This is important for the UK context but is also a badge of honour around the world. The ambitious plan for acceleration includes parallel identification and development of the site and the placing orders before the GDA is complete. It is suggested that they might fit well on NDA sites which have a nuclear history but are not big enough for gigawatt plant such as Trawsfynydd. After the first of kind a factory might be expected to produce two systems a year. If orders were to be higher then further factories could be built. In this manner the 5th unit should be 20 – 30% cheaper than first, down to about £50 kW.
Funding is in place for the GDA phase but not beyond. The company is lobbying for the UK policy situation to develop and sites to be identified. The company is confident that once production is underway then debt and equity vehicles will be sufficient to move them forward but government bridging funds may be needed to get there.
This was an upbeat talk but the reality is that they are playing in a crowded field and the UK has a poor record of being able to deliver fleet savings in nuclear build (except maybe in the nuclear submarine world where the figures are less well publicised) and has, for years, lacked a suitably forward looking and coherent energy policy. They are also competing with Russians and Canadians with a more obvious local market and a clearer path to that market and the Chinese with their very large investments in a range of nuclear technology. Too much depends on the UK government.
The IAEA has set up an International Technical Working Group on Small and Medium-Sized or Modular Reactors (SMR) with a number of sub-groups enabling international collaboration in the development of SMR and their applications. They have produced a booklet reviewing 72 designs, developed technology roadmaps for SMR deployment, generic user’s requirements and criteria and a tool for the economic appraisal. Interestingly (for me anyway) they have a project running looking at the emergency planning requirements for SMRs due to report in December of this year. (See IAEA material at https://www.iaea.org/topics/small-modular-reactors). The fact that there are 72 designs on offer shows up a problem. It is relatively cheap and sexy to design a reactor system and many organisations do this hoping to get a slice of future markets. Most fall out of the race and represent a waste of effort.
Rosatom claim to have “SMR solutions in Russia and for the global market”. They are developing and building small reactors for icebreakers, for floating power plant and for land based systems. Floating power plant are expected to be used in the North, replacing diesel, coal and old nuclear generators and providing heat and electricity. Because they are built in a shipyard they need very little local building and are floated away at end of life rather than decommissioned in-situ. They can also be repositioned mid-life if required. Their newer reactor designs are more compact.
By using these reactors in icebreakers (4 vessels each with 2 reactors) they have already achieved significant fleet savings (that pun was not intended). They also have identified markets, home and foreign, for the floating and land-based variants.
It appears that Russia has a very credible SMR programme with proven designs and proven markets.
We were told about “The Progress of HTR-PM in China”. This is a high temperature gas cooled reactor with ceramic coated fuel (TRISO particles, pebble bed format) and helium coolant. The programme has a long history including the reactors HTR-10 & HTR-PM and extensive engineering laboratory work. Almost all of the components are built in China. Unusually they have two reactors in parallel providing steam to a single turbine. Each reactor can provide 250 MW.th and 210 MW.e with cores 3m diameter x 11m high. Inlet 250 oC out 750 oC producing superheated steam. HTR-PM is currently in hot-testing with first criticality expected this year.
They now have proven technology and have plans to move forward. HTR-PM600 (650MW) will have six reactors feeding one turbine. These will be used for co-generation and to repower coal power stations. An aspiration is to go to higher temperatures for hydrogen production.
Some ideas on financing SMRs and Advanced Reactors were presented. The poor track record of on-time completion, very high capital requirements and long times before return have given the industry a bad name and mean that nuclear is often a “bet-the-company” investment. Contract for difference and Regulated Asset Base are two attempts to manage the high cost of money in big build public interest projects.
It was suggested that SMRs significantly reduce all of the finance and risk problems of big-nuclear. They should be able to complete on programme, capital demands are lower, lead times are shorter, costs of delays are less and costs are such that they are not bet-the-company investments. Therefore they can be treated as conventional assets.
SMRs are like aircraft in many respects. Both are built in factories, safety critical, and highly regulated and are deployed as a fleet. Interestingly it was claimed that an SMR requires a similar investment as an Airbus A-380 [I tried to verify this and found getting the numbers quite difficult but seems to be in the right ball park. The clearest cost estimate I found was a 12 unit NuScale (924 MWe) estimated to cost $2,850 per kWe giving costs of $2,633 Million (NuScale brochure) compared to $428 Million for an Airbus A380 (one unit not 12) https://247wallst.com/aerospace-defense/2015/12/26/how-much-does-an-airbus-a380-cost/ ). As for large aircraft it is conceivable that SMRs could be sold on a Sale and Leaseback in which the lessee pays purchase price in instalments over a set period of time before becoming owners. The payments are treated as expenses rather than capital investment and the utility doesn’t have the liability for the plant on its books. An alternative is an operating lease in which the Lessor pays only rent and not pay-down of the capital costs, making it more affordable and viable in areas that could not afford nuclear power under current arrangements. It is hard to see a factory owner or a community buying one of these for cash to provide their energy needs over the next 20 years but they might lease one if it gives them reliable low-cost energy. It is noted that if the SMR is mobile (for example floating) it can be moved mid-life and follow the money.
There were a series of shorter presentations within chaired panel discussions. These provided a number of viewpoints.
Micro-reactors (up to about 10 MWe) are in various stages of development and licensing with some hoping to be building first of a kind systems in the next few years. Russia and China are further along the development line.
They use a range of technologies; some use components from existing larger reactors or the aviation industry, some use more novel components such as heat tubes to remove the heat. All of these reactors are designed to be accident tolerant, they can be used to produce heat or electricity and some are combined with molten salt energy stores to balance supply and demand.
It was claimed that the NuScale Advanced Small Reactor with 12 (or 4 or 6) 77 MWe units would have a site fence emergency planning zone (I’ll wait to see the ONR judgement on that!) and no radioactive release in normal operation, events or decommissioning.
A joint study which shows small nuclear being cost-competitive was cited (https://www.oecd-nea.org/jcms/pl_51110/projected-costs-of-generating-electricity-2020-edition?details=true). A representative of the WNA put forward the view that the world should concentrate its efforts into a smaller number of design concepts (I agree) and that international harmonisation of reactor design approval was required (not very likely in my opinion).
All of the speakers agreed that the demand for electricity will rise, outstripping the capacity of renewables, as it is increasingly used for transport and domestic heating while the burning of hydrocarbons becomes less acceptable. (Estonia has an additional issue in that its grid connections to Russia are expected to be cut in 2025 and they want to move away from dirty shale gas that they currently burn).
The initial target market is remote communities with a need for district heating and electricity although industrial uses, mining, disaster response, hospitals, campuses, military bases, data centres, desalination, and hydrogen production were all mentioned as potential users.
A question about competition from solar power/wind power and batteries was dodged. But a later speaker stated that small grids with wind and solar would benefit from a nuclear component providing reliable generation and also the “spinning metal” required to control frequency and voltage and also reported an ability to black start (without grid supplies) some micro-reactors.
Interestingly all speakers were more fluent when discussing the potential market than when discussing operators. If these reactors are to penetrate markets as single, remote units it will not on sites with 500+ nuclear skilled employees. Getting licensed to operate them will have to be no more difficult than getting licences to run industrial process plant or they will run into difficulty. Will the regulators accept local “semi-skilled” operators with remote technical support?
Canada’s action plan for SMR was the subject of a panel discussion. It introduced the Candu Users Group (COG) and its Small and Modular Reactor Group. Canada has a proud history in nuclear technology and now has a large industry of strategic importance. The action plan (www.Smrroadmap.ca) has 53 recommendations which have translated to 497 actions. This is a broad coalition of 210 partners.
The Canadians have identified three streams of effort; fast development of SMRs with the potential to replace coal generation (a requirement of Canada’s environmental policy), the development of advanced reactors for a variety of purposes including use of used fuel, and the development of very small SMRs (vSMR) to replace diesel in off-grid situations (remote communities and industrial sites).
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is readying itself for the SMR programme with recruitment, a regulatory framework and reports on the potential issues. Their aim is to ensure safety and social acceptance without putting barriers in the path of progress.
The coherence and comprehensiveness of the Canadian plan is impressive. If only the UK could do something along the same lines.
This was an interesting day and provided ample evidence that there is a market position for small and micro reactors, with small reactors feeding national grids, process heat and hydrogen production and micro reactors providing power to remote communities and industries. There seem to be no insurmountable technology issues. The issues will be development finance and public acceptability and then the costs of ownership. Canada and Russia have advantages from obvious domestic markets at the high cost end. China has the advantage of a diverse nuclear industry and seemingly no limit to development funds. The UK obviously has the technical ability in this area with its commercial nuclear industry and nuclear powered submarine programme but it lacks the niche markets, clear funding and national strategy. There will be more in the market for multiple players. The UK will have to work hard to get a slice of that market.
The remote conference was not without technical issues and the posing of questions by text during the talk couldn’t replicate post-talk discussions. But the presentations and Q&As were available to review after the event.
I am grateful to Nuclear Engineering International for organising this event and to the speakers for their efforts. Next time I’d prefer to attend in person but this was a very welcome interlude in a lockdown.
Keith Pearce, Feb 2021