Discussions about nuclear power plants are usually black and white. Proponents and opponents are diametrically opposed to each other. It is still unclear which of the two will win. But there is a clear trend: the list of new nuclear power projects is growing rapidly.
This is especially true for small modular nuclear power plants, or SMR reactors. There are at least 70 companies in the world working on this technology. This includes Terrapower from the US, which is co-financed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. In France, a number of companies have joined forces for the NUWARD project, and in the United Kingdom, Rolls-Royce is developing small nuclear power plants.
Last week, Poland emerged with two tasks at once. One is from the Polish mining company KGHM, which wants to order at least four and perhaps a dozen of these SMRs from the US company Nu Scale Power, a subsidiary of Fluor.
Read our story about the KGHM project here.
Meanwhile, another Polish company, chemical producer Synthos, has signed a preliminary contract with a group of Canadian and American companies to create so-called BWRX-300 reactors. This relates to Cameco, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy and GEH SMR Technologies Canada.
In its early stages
But Geert Verbung, a professor at TU Eindhoven, is not yet convinced. “The truth is that these types of SMRs have never been used anywhere on a large scale,” he says. They are in the experimental stage. In addition, according to him, they face the same problems as existing and new large nuclear power plants. “This means that opponents will see nothing in it.”
The one major advantage Verbung sees is that small modular reactors could be useful as a flexible source of primary power. A disadvantage of large nuclear power plants is that, from a cost perspective, they are only interesting if the purchase of electricity is assured on a consistent basis. But this is precisely the difficult thing about sustainable energy. There are periods when there is a lot of wind and solar energy and periods when there is less. Small SMR reactors may be suitable to fill these gaps. Large nuclear power plants are too expensive for that.
In the case of small-scale reactor projects, the size varies greatly. The SMR reactors purchased by KGHM are relatively small at 77 MWh per plant. The BWRX-300 reactors include much more than that, i.e. 300 MWh. This is not a lot for a nuclear power plant (typically 800 MWh or more), but it is still enough to supply electricity to approximately 300,000 households.
Canadian nuclear energy expert Marcel de Vos – the son of Dutch immigrants – is somewhat more positive about the outlook. He also says it’s a technology that still needs further development. It itself is not directly involved on behalf of the Canadian regulatory body CNSC, but is involved indirectly. The CNSC is the body that issues permits for new nuclear power plants in Canada.
There is close cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, regulators and engineers from other countries, especially the United States and the United Kingdom. “The goal is to improve and harmonize technical regulations and safety standards as best as possible.”
The current situation is that things do not look that bad for SMRs, according to De Vos. “I see technological potential for these new reactor designs with improvements in safety, ease of operation and maintenance and waste stream management. I also see no reason why these types of power plants would not be suitable for a densely populated country like the Netherlands. In China they are already building such a facility and in Canada There are two projects in the licensing stage.
This relates to a small nuclear power station of just 5 MWh from Chalk Rivers Laboratories and the new Darlington nuclear project (300 MWh).
Climate Communications at Yale University
Interestingly, in North America there is less talk about the risk of nuclear accidents or problematic storage of nuclear waste. It’s more about costs and other environmental issues. This is demonstrated, among other things, in the documentary by Yale Climate Connections.
Energy experts interviewed in this documentary argue that the biggest environmental drawback of SMRs is that they consume a lot of water, a scarce resource, especially as the Earth continues to warm.
Sol Griffiths, Australian-American inventor and CEO of Other Lab, points out that nuclear power is relatively safe and reliable compared to other forms of energy. “But there are of course a lot of political headwinds, and I personally worry about whether there is enough cooling water available.” In the long term, he questions the ability of clean, reliable nuclear power to compete with wind and solar power.
Daniel Kamin, a nuclear physicist from the University of California Berkeley, hopes there will be a place for nuclear energy in the future energy mix. “But a lot of research still needs to be done to make it competitive.”
Arjun Makhijani of the Institute of Energy and Environmental Research is negative. He sees only one reason for the sudden surge of interest in small nuclear power plants: “The big power plants have failed.” Another drawback for him is the time factor. It may take another ten years before SMR reactors are safely deployed on a large scale. This is a very tall order for the climate, and solar panels and wind turbines will also likely be much cheaper than they are now by then.
One of the most prominent proponents of SMR reactors is Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Earlier this year, in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, he noted that the world needs major technological breakthroughs to solve the climate problem. To be sure, Gates also sees a role for SMRs.
That’s why Gates is investing in Terrapower. He invests in several companies focused on green technologies, from companies that store carbon dioxide to companies that make meat alternatives.
Zombie specialist. Friendly twitter guru. Internet buff. Organizer. Coffee trailblazer. Lifelong problem solver. Certified travel enthusiast. Alcohol geek.