IAEA Technology Roadmap for Small Modular Reactor Deployment

IAEA Nuclear Energy Series, No. NR‑T‑1.1

Technology Roadmap for Small Modular Reactor Deployment

We hear a lot about the potential for Small Modular Reactors, Advanced Modular Reactors and microreactors to provide reliable, affordable, low carbon energy to produce electricity, district heat, industrial heat and hydrogen, including in places where grids cannot reach but, other than in China and Russia where they are getting on with the job, generally the discussion is about getting to the demonstrator (or First of a Kind (FOAK)) rather than beyond.

The stated objective of this paper by the IAEA, drafted by an international group over a series of meetings, “is to present several model technology roadmaps to Member States which can be adapted to their specific projects”. The guidance “describing good practices, represents expert opinion but does not constitute recommendations made on the basis of a consensus of Member States”. It is notable that no one from RR, ONR or BEIS was on this group.

The authors keep interrupting the narrative about how to plan for the deployment of SMRs with seemingly random sections reviewing the state of play with various designs across the world and the history of the field.

The paper is apparently aimed at:

  • owners/operating organizations, who drive the demand and requirements for reactor designs;
  • designers, who develop the technologies; and
  • regulators, who establish and maintain the regulatory requirements that need to be met by owners/operating organizations.

Technology roadmaps, we are told, “are part of a methodology that guarantees the alignment of investments in technology and the development of new capabilities. A proven management tool, technology roadmaps are used for identifying, evaluating, communicating and promoting the development of complex technology projects”. One aim is to increase the chances of passing well known pitfalls where failure is more likely (Figure from IAEA NR-T-1.18).

The first pitfall is the potential failure of the R&D to satisfactorily addressed all technology gaps to enable the construction of a reliable prototype or the performance of an important proof of concept test. (I think that technically competent reactor designs fail at this stage due to a lack of funds to continue). The second is commercial; is the technology reliable, accepted by the regulator and cost competitive against its alternatives?

The operation of an SMR or a fleet of SMRs requires national soft and hard infrastructure such as:

  • Physical facilities for the delivery of electricity [or heat];
  • Site and supporting facilities for handling and disposing of radioactive waste;
  • Legal, regulatory and policy framework;
  • Financial resources necessary to implement the required activities;
  • Trained human resources.

In fact, the paper recognises 19 infrastructure issues (Table 2 of report). This is a useful list. Civil servants looking at government support for this technology should review this list to see if it identifies any expensive or difficult hurdles.

One of the issues with SMRs is the potential for them to be built rapidly – several a year – with the potential for deployment in countries other than those in which they were designed and built. These two factors present a challenge to site licencing which is much discussed.

For countries that already have a nuclear industry the hosting of a SMR or fleet of SMRs should not pose great legal, regulatory or infrastructure issues although the siting requirements may need further consideration as with potentially reduced emergency planning zones and less cooling water requirements these plants can go on a wider range of sites. It would also be necessary to consider the county’s ability to manage the fuel cycle and waste produced by the SMRs if they differ from the existing fleet. The paper gives an update on progress in several countries.

For countries without an existing nuclear industry the IAEA has outlined an approach in an earlier paper (Milestones in the Development of a National Infrastructure for Nuclear Power, IAEA Nuclear Energy Series No. NG‑G‑3.1 (Rev.1)). This involves stages before a knowledgeable commitment can be made to nuclear power; before they are ready to invite bids from suppliers and before they are ready to commission and operate the first power station. Each of these stages are discussed.

It is interesting to consider how this might apply to the Russian concept of floating power stations where the extreme view could be that the licensing, safety and fuel cycle issues are all managed by the Russian company to their national standards and the host country has an electric cable running into from offshore. How different is this to a French PWR providing power to the UK via a cable running under the English Channel?

Section 3 of the report is a review of the prospects for SMR technology which the IAEA rate as promising. Section 3.2.4 seems to suggest that public are certain to accept the technology because it is the only way to hit the IPCC’s decarbonisation target. I am not convinced!

Section 4 identifies stakeholders of which the keys ones are the designer/supplier, the owner/operating organisation, the technical support organisation, the investors, the regulatory bodies, the government and the public. It then discusses regulatory frameworks including the IAEA and OECD/NEA and WENRA and discusses goal setting and prescription as the two major licensing approaches before introducing the SMR Regulators’ Forum.

Section 5 concentrates on near term deployable SMR technology and provides a road map in three sections: owner or operating organisation, designer/vendor of the technology, regulatory bodies. This section is very disjointed and hard to read.

Section 6 looks at more innovative reactors designs which are further from market and highlights technical areas and R&D activities that are likely to absorb effort and funds on the pathway to deployment. This section also reviews six technologies that are being considered and takes a speculative look at the potential integration of renewable energy sources with nuclear sources.

An annex to the report reviews three designs of SMR in operation or under construction.

This could be a very interesting report but the drafting is poor making it hard to read from beginning to end. It does however give an impression of the breadth and depth of work that is required to support a nuclear power plant. I’m sure that it could be useful to a civil service providing government funding and support to the SMR industry. What would be useful is a map showing the development path for SMR and AMR reactors with a series of gates through which they have to pass, a discussion about what needs to be achieved before a reactor design can pass each gate and the technological and financial risks implied, who is responsible for the risks and an estimated cost and time for reaching each gate.

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