SMR Development and the Role of Nuclear in a Net Zero Future

At the time of writing, we are more than halfway through COP26 climate conference, so it seems quite apposite for there to have been an announcement by Rolls-Royce on securing the funding for its 470 MW(e) Small Modular Reactor (SMR) development.

The Benefits of SMRs

SMRs are, as the name suggests, smaller and cheaper than the conventional, modern nuclear reactors, and like them will contribute to the UK’s low-carbon economy and net zero strategy. The Rolls-Royce design would occupy about one tenth of the size of a conventional nuclear plant – the equivalent footprint of two football pitches – and power approximately one million homes. According to the US Department of Energy, SMRs also offer distinct safeguards, security and non-proliferation advantages.

There are over 70 designs of SMRs according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Floating SMRs are in operation in Russia and construction of others in Argentina and China are well-advanced, and many more are expected to be in service by the end of the decade.

Nuclear Investment

Rolls-Royce Group, together with BNF Resources UK Limited and Exelon Generation Limited will invest £195m over the next three years in the development of the SMR design. Importantly, UK Research and Innovation funding will provide a further £210m of public finance investment. This comes from the £385m Advanced Nuclear Fund announced last year as part of the 10 point plan for the government’s “green industrial revolution“.

The company will seek further investment, but this initial amount will allow the design to go through the nuclear and environmental regulators’ Generic Design Assessment (GDA) process for new nuclear power stations to ensure it will meet high standards of safety, security, environmental protection and radioactive waste management. In addition, the funding will allow the identification of factory sites which will build the modules for assembly at the chosen locations for reactor deployment.

SMR Development

The Rolls-Royce SMR design is a development of its submarine reactor technology and the business could create up to 40,000 jobs according to Rolls-Royce and provide opportunities for export.

In another recent announcement relating to SMR development, NuScale Power and the Romanian national nuclear company Nuclearelectrica signed a teaming agreement on 4th November to advance the deployment of NuScale’s 462 MWE(e) SMR technology in the country. The signing came a day after plans for the cooperation were announced on the sidelines of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.

Source: Posiva

Nuclear Waste Management

As with any nuclear facility, the question always arises as to the management of operational radioactive waste, the management of the spent nuclear fuel and the SMR’s ultimate decommissioning and disposal at the end of its life which varies depending on the design. In order to use existing or planned disposal routes, SMRs need to not produce novel wasteforms that may compromise the safety case for a disposal facility. This is unlikely to happen, but a bigger question is what to do with the spent nuclear fuel.

Should this be directly disposed of or reprocessed, and if reprocessed, where should the disposal facility be? Should it be in the country of origin or the country of deployment? In the case of the latter, it may not have the infrastructure or even the geology. One option here though could be to site a deep borehole disposal facility adjacent to the reactor site which could go well below mined repository depth to several kilometres into the basement layer and provide the required isolation. Deep borehole disposal was considered at a webinar hosted by IFNEC in November 2020.

Nuclear Power at COP26

At COP26 the role of nuclear has been featured with events such as The Role of Nuclear Energy in a Net Zero Future involving World Nuclear Association Director General Sama Bilbao y León, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi and International Energy Agency (IEA) Executive Director General Fatih Birol and Sophie Macfarlane-Smith, head of customer business for Rolls-Royce SMR. The panel agreed that nuclear energy, including SMRs, was a vital tool in helping achieve the 1.5°C goal and helping the smaller countries economic development.

Not everyone though has welcomed the Rolls-Royce SMR announcement, with both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth saying nuclear was more expensive than renewables and that there was still no solution to the issue of radioactive waste. However, on that subject, an international conference was held last week in Vienna on Radioactive Waste Management: Solutions for a Sustainable Future hosted by the IAEA where they heard of progress being made on the development by Posiva Oy of the world’s first geological disposal facility (GDF) for spent fuel in Finland which expects to start operating later in the 2020s. This was highlighted by opening speakers as a proof of progress in waste management and a game changer for the long-term sustainability of nuclear energy. “We have solutions for a sustainable future, just like the title of this conference says,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi.

The conference also heard from the UK’s RWM on its progress in securing a site to develop a GDF in Cumbria. In September this year, the Copeland GDF Working Group (which includes Sellafield in its area) announced the formation of two Community Partnerships which would examine the potential for two areas within the borough where RWM could begin to search for a site that might be suitable for a GDF. In September, neighbouring Allerdale GDF Working Group also identified initial areas for investigation. A third working group has also been established at Theddlethorpe in Lincolnshire.

The Vienna conference ended on an optimistic note and we will watch with interest the progress by not only Finland and the UK, but other countries such as Sweden and France which are also at advanced stages of GDF development.

About the Author

John Mathieson is a non legal technical advisor on nuclear energy related issues in a number of key international markets. He has some 45 years’ experience in the nuclear industry, primarily involving the areas of radioactive waste management and decommissioning. John works with the International Atomic Energy Agency, participating in expert missions, technical meetings and working groups. He has worked on projects assisting many overseas governments to develop financing, decommissioning and radioactive waste management strategies and infrastructures. John Mathieson has a BSc (Hons) in Physics and an MSc in Radiation and Environmental Protection from the University of Surrey. He is a Member of the Society for Radiological Protection and is a Board Director and Secretary of Waste Management Symposia Inc. which runs the annual Waste Management conference in Phoenix, USA.

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