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THINKING OF GOING NUCLEAR: SMALL MODULAR REACTORS (SMRs) EXPLORED

In this series of blogs, we look at a major decision a country would need to consider before pursuing the nuclear option for energy generation; the choice of reactor.

The alternatives are the so-called small modular reactors (SMRs), or the full scale offerings. With the latter, there is then the choice of vendors of which there appears to be no shortage, a subject we may cover at another stage. However, to date no newcomer country has opted for an SMR.

It is first of all worth explaining what an SMR is. “SMR” can stand for either “small modular reactor” or “small and medium sized reactor”. However, the “modular” acronym seems to have come into wider use these days, and will be used here.

An SMR is usually defined as an advanced reactor with 300 MW(e) to 500 MW(e) output, whereas the full scale modern varieties are around 1000 MW(e) to 2000 MW(e) output. By way of comparison, EDF Energy’s Sizewell B PWR and its Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors have ratings around 1200 MW(e), and the older Magnox were between 50 MW(e) and 490 MW(e) (these would never be described as SMRs as they were not “advanced” in their design).

SMRs can be deployed either singly or in multiples to build up to the required capacity. Deploying single units will be convenient for countries with dispersed centres of population but without any grid connection between them. Moreover, as well as power supply for homes and businesses, they can be utilised for heavy industry purposes including process heat and desalination. Being modular, new units can be added to a suite of existing ones when needed, or when further finance becomes available (which can be generated from the profits of the existing ones).

As with the larger reactors, there is a large range of designs of SMRs – up to 45 according to the IAEA. They fall into four broad categories: light water cooled reactors, high temperature gas cooled reactors, molten salt and liquid-metal (sodium or lead) cooled fast reactors.

Additional advantages of SMR’s include:

Ease of Construction: They can be factory built and transported on the back of a truck or railcar to site, thus assuring the construction programme and minimising the need for onsite activities. The Russians even have floating designs – not to be confused with nuclear propelled vessels which have been around for some time.

Affordability: Being smaller, they are more affordable and open up a number of financing models.

Safety: The advanced design means they have inherent and passive safety features which have fewer moving parts that can go wrong and a reliance on natural circulation of the coolant if something does.

It’s not just newcomer countries that are interested in SMRs. Those with existing nuclear programmes, such as the US and Russia, are also looking at their use, as is the UK. The total global market is estimated to be between £250 and £400 billion.

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