Before deciding whether to pursue the nuclear energy option for energy generation, one of the major decisions a country would need to consider is the choice of reactor. Our nuclear specialist John Mathieson runs through the key benefits of SMR technology and touches on the current developments in nuclear energy happening across the Middle East.
What options are there for choosing a reactor design?
Of course it depends on the use to which the energy generated is going to be put.
If it is to supply the grid and the grid has capacity, then the larger scale units are an obvious choice. These are assumed to be units which can generate more than 700 MW(e). Take for example the UAE’s four Generation III+ APR1400 reactors at Barakah, constructed to meet its existing and future energy demand. Units 1 and 2 are in operation, with 3 and 4 becoming operational in 2023 – each generating 1345 MW(e). EDF Energy’s Hinkley Point C being constructed in the UK comprises two 1630 MW(e) units and will start operation in 2026.
The alternatives to these large generators are the so-called small modular reactors (SMRs), or advanced SMRs as sometimes described.
What is an SMR?
An SMR is described by the IAEA as an advanced reactor which generates up to 300 MW(e), although in practice some designs go higher than this: for example the Rolls-Royce SMR will generate 470 MW€. There is a subset of SMRs know as micro-reactors which will generate up to 10 MW(e).
SMRs can be deployed either singly or in multiples (modules) to build up to the required capacity. Deploying single unit SMRs or micro-reactors will be convenient for countries with dispersed centres of population and without any grid connection between them, and which may be relatively inaccessible.
Moreover, as well as power supply for homes and businesses, they can be utilised for heavy industry energy supply such as process heat and sea water 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 considerable range of designs of SMRs – up to 70 according to the IAEA. Some are designed not to be refuelled for up to 30 years. They fall into four broad categories:
- Light water cooled reactors
- High temperature gas cooled reactors
- Molten salt
- Liquid-metal (sodium or lead) cooled fast reactors
According to a December 2021 market research report, the global SMR market is forecast to grow from $3.5 billion in 2020 to reach $18.8 billion in 2030, which is being driven by increasing need for flexible power generation, along with the transition from a fossil-fuel-based energy system to a net-zero-emissions one.
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.
- 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. This aspect may have additional public acceptance benefits.
- Sustainability: Stable SMR energy generation could be combined with the more variable renewable energy sources in a hybrid energy system and help countries meet their zero carbon goals.
Potential for deployment of nuclear energy in the Middle East
As noted, the UAE is developing full scale reactor technology at its Barakah site.
Also going full scale is Egypt, which, in January 2022 its Nuclear Power Plant Authority applied for construction licences for units 3 and 4 of the El Dabaa nuclear power project, some six months after a similar application for units 1 and 2; these will be VVER-1200 units supplied by Rosatom.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is also exploring options for investing $100 billion in several nuclear plants with a combined capacity of 22 gigawatts. The KSA is also looking to deploy SMRs.
In 2020 the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (K.A. CARE), and the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) updated their agreement to supply KSA with two “first of a kind” System-integrated modular advanced reactors (SMART).
These are integral pressurised water reactors with a rated electrical power of 100 MW(e). The design is a multi-purpose application reactor for electricity production, sea water desalination, district heating, process heat for industries and suitable for small or isolated grids. A suitable site has apparently been identified at Yanbu, near Medina.
The Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) has signed a number of agreements in the past few years to look at the deployment of several designs in the country, including NuScale Power, Rolls-Royce, K.A. CARE and X-energy; in addition, Chinese and Russian designs are being considered. They will undertake an exercise to down-select to the most viable option in due course and deploy by 2030 an “nth of a kind”.
In January this year, the World Future Energy Summit, held in Abu Dhabi, heard from Rolls-Royce that SMRs can support the clean energy ambitions of Middle Eastern countries; these would be additional options for countries interested in nuclear.
In addition to the countries mentioned, the World Nuclear Association reports that:
- Iraq wants to build eight reactors with 11 GW(e) capacity.
- Israel had plans for a twin reactor nuclear plant by 2020, but this was never realised.
- Kuwait was considering a nuclear programme of four 1000 MW(e) plants by 2022, but [following the Fukushima accident], in mid-2011, the programme was halted.
- Oman and Qatar also investigated nuclear but programmes in these countries never developed.
Perhaps some of those countries which have abandoned their nuclear aspirations may reconsider them with a view to deploying SMRs rather than the full-scale alternatives.
John Mathieson is a non legal technical advisor on nuclear energy related issues in a number of key international markets. He has some 36 years’ experience, primarily involving the areas of radioactive waste management and decommissioning.
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