Can Small Modular Reactors Add Nuclear to the Renewables Equation?

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Amazon won approval for 15 new data centers on its nuclear-powered campus in Pennsylvania last week – a massive investment in cloud capex and a firm vote of confidence in atomic energy by one of the biggest companies on Earth.

What gives? It wasn’t so long ago that Western countries were shunning nuclear power and even shuttering their reactors.

Rampant inflation and the push for net zero have changed the picture. Nuclear is back on the agenda as more people realize that fission and radioactive decay are natural phenomena. Like sun and wind, they’re sustainable – just harder to harness.

But a return to Big Nuke’s pre-Fukushima glory days isn’t in the cards. What we’re seeing is a re-think prompted by a new class of mini reactor. Cheaper to build, safer to run, and able to go where traditional plants can’t, small modular reactors (SMRs) promise a flexible and unlimited supply of carbon-free electricity.

Is scalable nuclear the next phase of the renewable energy transition? We look at the evidence.

Key Takeaways

  • Nuclear power is inching back into vogue, shedding some of its negative connotations thanks to the arrival of small modular reactors.
  • SMRs promise to make nuclear more scalable, with small-ish plants that are cheaper, safer, mobile, and easier to construct.
  • The timing is perfect as green energy enthusiasts look for ways to accelerate the transition to renewables and decarbonize heavy industry.
  • Can nuclear energy really be sustainable? A growing number of experts and influencers say yes. But SMRs are still unproven. And other concerns remain.

New Atomic Age

Are we on the cusp of a nuclear resurgence? In March 2024, Amazon acquired its 1,200-acre Pennsylvania cloud campus from Talen Energy. The site is powered directly by the interestingly-named Susquehanna Steam Electric Station, a two-reactor nuclear plant located right next door.

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The fact that it’s less than an hour’s drive from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania – the site of 1979’s Three Mile Island nuclear disaster – hasn’t merited much comment.

What could make memories so short? Blame the economic backdrop, where rising energy costs are heating up inflation. The other is the sluggish pace of the renewables transition, hampered by outdated transmission infrastructure and the thorny reality of intermittency – i.e., generation stops if the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.

Onto the stage step SMRs. First trialed by the US military in the 1950s, they only became commercially viable in 2007 when a team at Oregon State University demonstrated the first working model.

Essentially scaled-down versions of existing light water reactors, they need about 7 hectares of land compared to 259 for a traditional reactor. Their components are built in factories, then shipped and assembled on-site.

That shortens construction times to about 3-5 years and keeps costs at about $1-3 billion versus the tens of billions and sometimes decades required to bring a full-scale plant to fruition.

Small Modular Reactors vs. Conventional Reactors
Source: The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

Small Modular Reactor Pros and Cons

SMR’s Sustainable Potential: Expert Views

The nuclear industry calls SMRs a ‘convenient, cost-effective and low-emission energy solution.’ Even formerly nuclear-skeptic EU policymakers are now waxing lyrical about their potential to accelerate industrial decarbonization.

Richard Stainsby, Chief Technologist for Advanced Reactors at global infrastructure consultancy Jacobs, told Techopedia that some SMRs with specialized cooling systems “can produce heat at temperatures above 500°C for industrial applications, including synthetic aviation fuel, carbon-free hydrogen, and other high-temperature processes.”

But he highlights applications beyond heavy industry, including the generation of “cost-effective electricity for export to a national grid or to support remote communities with combined heat and power. They can also be located on sites with either limited space or limited availability of water for cooling.”

Jacobs has recently been engaged by the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) to help build the business case for additional R&D investment in a new advanced modular reactor (AMR) concept.

AMR’s are specialized SMRs for energy-intensive manufacturing that promise “to contribute to one of the most challenging aspects of energy transition – the decarbonization of heavy industry such as steel and cement production,” said Jacobs Vice President Andy White in a statement.

Emma Vernon, VP for Government and New Build at NNL, said the project, which is being jointly developed with the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, “will help UK industry adapt to a changing world and take a step closer to achieving our net-zero goals.”

Pitfalls and Disadvantages of Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

Figures from Precedence Research valued the SMR market at around $6 billion last year and predicted it would reach $8.6 billion by 2032, an annual compound growth rate of 3%. Compare that to, say, the projected US market for biomass power generation, which was worth over $120 billion in 2021. SMRs seem headed for steady growth, but the overall numbers aren’t Earth-shaking.

Another report by the UK’s New Nuclear Watch Institute forecasts that the total installed capacity of a future SMR ‘fleet’ globally could be in the region of 150 to 170 gigawatts (GW) by mid-century. Given that the world consumed more than 178,000 Terawatt hours TWh in 2022, that’s a drop in the bucket.

Small Modular Reactor Market Size, 2022-2032

What’s holding SMRs back?

  • Concerns About Radioactive Waste. A 2022 study by researchers at Stanford University and the University of British Columbia suggests that SMRs could generate more radioactive waste than conventional nuclear power plants.
  • The Cost of Power They Produce. A 2023 analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in the US found that the unsubsidized price of electricity from the high-profile (but later canceled) NuScale SMR project in Idaho would have been more than $100 per MWh, “significantly higher than the $24 per MWh from onshore wind and utility-scale solar.”
  • The Risk of Nuclear Proliferation. Any state or terrorist organization looking to develop atomic weapons capability currently faces significant roadblocks to any attempt to procure highly enriched uranium or plutonium. If SMRs are going to be widely deployed – particularly in remote areas – they will need to prove that cyber and physical security, safeguards, material control, and audits have been built into their designs.

How Green Are Those Electrons?

The nuclear industry has tried for years to position fission-driven steam turbines as a form of sustainable energy.

“The proposition of nuclear power as a sustainable energy source is fundamentally robust due to its innate energy density, and its internalization of health and environmental costs,” wrote the World Nuclear Association in an April 2024 blog. Do SMRs make the case more compelling?

Jacobs’ Richard Stainsby thinks so:

“The main advantage of nuclear power plants, including SMRs, is their reliable contribution to baseload requirements for carbon-free electricity. Unlike (traditional) renewables, heat and power from nuclear plants are available on demand without the need for energy storage.”

Small modular reactors, he says – particularly those that can flex output between heat and electricity – can “load-follow and serve to complement the intermittent nature of renewables,” while their ability to provide heat output for industrial applications “aids the decarbonization of industry, which would otherwise prove difficult with renewable energy sources that are typically limited in terms of temperature output.”

Nuclear, he adds, complements renewables like wind, solar, and hydro and should be factored into the overall mix “to meet today’s energy requirements while working towards reducing carbon footprint,” rather than being seen as a transitional step.

Competing for the Top Spot

The NNL’s advanced modular reactor concept will have to compete with at least 25 other SMR designs for funding and market uptake. In its 2023 report, the New Nuclear Watch Institute identified five that have a first-mover advantage:

VOYGR (NuScale, USA)

Despite early setbacks at its demonstration project at the Idaho National Laboratory in the US, NNWI predicts that NuScale’s VOYGR SMR will command close to a tenth of the world’s installed capacity by 2050.

VOYGR 12 SMR
VOYGR 12 SMR. Source: NuScale

BWRX-300 (GE/Hitachi, USA)

The BWRX-300 SMR is designed to reduce exposure to ‘security of supply’ risks, relying on standard boiling water reactor fuel assemblies. Its components can be built and assembled in a factory with improved construction methods that lower overall project costs.

RITM-200 (Rosatom, Russia)

The RITM series SMRs, developed by Rosatom, are designed mainly for off-grid use: icebreakers, floating power plants, and small onshore nuclear plants. It aims to deliver an all-in-one business model that accommodates remote and mobile operations.

ACP-100 (CNNC, China)

The ACP-100 from the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is designed for both land and floating platforms plus various co-generation applications. It offers an optimized manufacturing model that incorporates cost-saving construction techniques.

XE-100 (X-energy, USA)

The XE-100 reactor from private US firm X-energy is a high-temperature gas reactor (HTGR) for industrial applications. NNWI says it’s poised to capture a significant market share, potentially reaching 7% by 2050.

Reconsidering the Merits of Nuclear Energy

Atomic energy has always been viewed with a measure of suspicion, but the Fukushima disaster seemed to signal that its time had passed. Today, energy firms and governments are reconsidering the merits of nuclear energy, largely on the promise of small modular reactors.

The US Department of Energy says SMRs are “a key part of its goal to develop safe, clean, and affordable nuclear power,” while pro-nuke influencers are making their presence felt on social media, pulling followers and staunchly supporting new builds with what they say is a balanced view of current risks and benefits.

The Bottom Line: Reality Check

Meanwhile, Russia’s floating SMR power plant, the Akademik Lomonosov, launched in 2019 and deployed in the Arctic, is the first – and still the only – SMR project to achieve full-fledged commercial operation.

Others are waiting to set sail, but it remains to be seen if the energy industry, governments, and investors can provide enough impetus to make a global impact.

FAQs

Is nuclear energy renewable or nonrenewable?

What is the problem with small modular reactors?

How many homes can a small modular reactor power?

Are SMRs the future?

What countries are building SMRs?

References

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  12. Global Biomass Power Market Size Report, 2022-2030 (Grandviewresearch)
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  17. VOYGR SMR Plants | NuScale Power (Nuscalepower)
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Mark De Wolf
Tech Writer
Mark De Wolf
Tech Writer

Mark is a freelance tech journalist covering software, cybersecurity, and SaaS. His work has appeared in Dow Jones, The Telegraph, SC Magazine, Strategy, InfoWorld, Redshift, and The Startup. He graduated from the Ryerson University School of Journalism with honors where he studied under senior reporters from The New York Times, BBC, and Toronto Star, and paid his way through uni as a jobbing advertising copywriter. In addition, Mark has been an external communications advisor for tech startups and scale-ups, supporting them from launch to successful exit. Success stories include SignRequest (acquired by Box), Zeigo (acquired by Schneider Electric), Prevero (acquired…