Small reactors top nuclear agenda

25 August 2023

This package also includes: Mena pushes for nuclear future

 


Small modular reactor (SMR) solutions could offset concerns about capital expenditure, construction delays and spent-fuel reprocessing that large-scale nuclear power plants present.

SMRs are advanced nuclear reactors that have a power capacity of up to 300MW a unit, which is about one-third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

They can be factory-assembled, transported and installed in locations not suitable for larger nuclear power plants, such as industrial zones or remote areas with limited grid capacity. This makes them more affordable and easier to build than large reactors.

So far, there are only two advanced SMR installations globally, one in China and the other in Russia. The US’ NuScale is also working towards deploying its first modules in Idaho.

Saudi Arabia and Jordan have been considering deploying SMR solutions as part of their nuclear power programmes.

In 2020, King Abdullah City for Atomic & Renewable Energy (KA-Care) and South Korea’s Science & ICT (Information & Communication Technology) Ministry set up a joint venture to undertake the commercialisation and construction of South Korea’s system-integrated modular advanced reactor technology in the kingdom with the help of Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power.

Nuclear energy is having a revival moment as a recognised part of climate mitigation
Karen Young, Centre on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University

Seeking partners

Jordan, for its part, signed an agreement with Russia for the construction of two 1,000MW reactors in 2015, but the project was cancelled three years later.

Jordan is now considering small nuclear reactors and is talking to potential partners including Russia, South Korea, France and the UK to determine the optimal technical specifications and how to adapt the reactors to the Jordanian environment, Khaled Toukan, chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission, said in April.

Jordan hopes to use small nuclear reactors for water desalination and power production.

“We have done all the studies,” Toukan said at the time. “The infrastructure is in place, and studies on site selection and the provision of cooling water are in place. Now, we are comparing technologies and we want to get the go-ahead from the government.”

According to Karen Young, a senior research scholar at the Centre on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University in the US, “nuclear energy is having a revival moment as a recognised part of climate mitigation”. 

She says: “We simply do not have other ways of ramping up non-carbon energy production as easily. Technology innovations in SMRs, among others, make this look like a more viable option.”

However, SMRs are as yet unproven, points out Paddy Padmanathan, co-founder and vice-chairman of green hydrogen firm Zhero. He adds that solar and wind projects with battery energy storage systems cost significantly less, despite the subsidies some governments allocate to nuclear power plant projects.

We simply do not have other ways of ramping up non-carbon energy production as easily

Spent fuel

Regardless of a nuclear plant’s size, the storage or reprocessing of the resulting highly radioactive solid waste is a key safety and environmental concern. 

Nuclear reactors require ceramic pellets of low-enriched uranium oxide. These are stacked vertically and encased in metallic cladding to form a fuel rod. The fuel rods are bundled into fuel assemblies that are placed into the reactor. 

The fuel pellets remain in the reactors for five or six years of operation, or until the fission process uses up the uranium fuel. 

The US, which generates about 2,000 tonnes of spent fuel a year, stores the solid waste across 70 reactor sites in the country. Research and development into how to recycle spent fuel, or to design advanced reactors that could consume it, is also under way.

With 58 nuclear power plants generating over 70 per cent of its electricity, France produces nearly 1,150 tonnes of spent fuel a year. Unlike the US, France recycles spent fuel through a process that converts spent plutonium – formed in nuclear power reactors as a by-product of burning uranium fuel – and uranium into a mixed oxide that can be reused in nuclear plants to produce more electricity.

In Iran, meanwhile, the policy at the 1,000MW Bushehr reactor entails cooling down spent fuel in an onsite pool, a process that takes at least five years. It is then transported in steel cylinders that are welded closed to a central storage location in the country’s Anarak region.

UAE policy

The UAE government is developing a long-term storage policy for spent fuel from its Barakah nuclear power plant, the first reactor of which began producing electricity in 2021. The current plan involves placing the fuel assemblies in concrete and steel-lined cooling pools located at the Barakah plant, after which they will be stored in dry casks either on site or at a long-term storage facility.

According to Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, the UAE still has plenty of time to make decisions about spent-fuel management, as the first batch of nuclear fuel will be stored for 20-30 years in the spent-fuel pool.

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Jennifer Aguinaldo
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