Over the last couple years, policymakers have grown concerned about reducing reliance on fossil fuels and embracing renewable and carbon-free electricity sources. Many countries, the US included, have responded with large strides in implementing wind and solar. However, these have major drawbacks such as inadequate frequency and quantity of power generated. A solution to both of these problems has been around since the 1940s– nuclear power. One notable component of nuclear power is small modular nuclear reactors. This relatively new technology might be a key part in the future of electricity grids around the world.
Small modular nuclear reactors (SMR), which the International Atomic Energy Agency defines as any electricity producing nuclear reactor less than or equal to 300 MWe as opposed to “traditional” large gigawatt scale reactors, have been on the minds of policymakers and the general public for the past few years. Currently, there are a number of companies designing or manufacturing SMRs, but some of these companies are definitely more notable than others; a particularly notable one is a company called Nuscale Power. Founded in 2007 after branching off of a Department of Energy funded research project at Oregon State University, Nuscale Power gained exclusive rights to their specific SMR technology. After a very rigorous and intensive review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Nuscale had their design approved in 2020, which represented only the seventh such design ever approved.
SMRs boost a number of significant advantages over more traditional reactor designs. The first advantage of SMRs are, of course, their modular design. For example, a power station using Nuscale’s design could vary from four modules all the way up to twelve modules. This feature means that different power plants providing electricity for different grid sizes could use the same design in terms of individual modules, and a power supplier facing additional load requirements due to population growth or growth in a regional manufacturing sector could easily add capacity by ordering and installing additional modules. This would allow power suppliers to significantly reduce initial capital expenditures and then scale up as demand and revenue increase.
A second advantage is the overall production cost of an SMR style plant as opposed to a traditional gigawatt scale reactor design. In the previous paragraph, the idea of “modules” was introduced; this is a fairly new concept in the field of nuclear power. A single “module” consists of three units that are shipped out individually to the plant and then assembled onsite. These three-piece units are simply made on an assembly line just as automobiles are, since Henry Ford did the same thing to significantly reduce general manufacturing cost. Just as Ford’s goal was to expand his market by making automobiles far more affordable and within the reach of the general population, the idea behind the mass production of nuclear reactors is exactly the same: cost reduction.
A third advantage to reducing the size of the individual reactors is safety. When reducing the size of a reactor core, material capable of fission is naturally reduced. Fission is defined as “the splitting of an atomic nucleus resulting in the release of large amounts of energy,” according to Merriam Webster. This reduction makes cooling easier and at the same time reduces the quantity of potential energy within the system. This reduction allowed Nuscale to implement this major design feature which omits coolant pumps as specified in a Nuclear Regulatory Commission review. After all, a pump can’t fail if it isn’t there in the first place.
It has been estimated by several sources that demand for electricity is rising quickly. Electric cars are slowly but surely gaining market share and many municipalities are considering banning gas-powered ovens, furnaces, and water heaters. Shifting power from fossil fuels such as petroleum, diesel, and natural gas to other sources such as wind and solar will put an even greater burden on the electric grid. Another problem in regards to the energy grid, in the U.S. specifically, is the fact that coal power plants are shutting down since they are far from environmentally friendly. So with electric demands rising and power production from certain sources dropping, there is a significant capacity deficit when it comes to electricity. Wind and solar are increasingly popular sources of energy but they are very expensive, take up lots of land, and, even when they work, have less than desirable capacity factors. A report published by Idaho National Laboratory found that converting coal power plants to nuclear power is a more than viable option with several benefits such as the fact that the coal plants are shutting down anyway and they have existing facilities that are used in nuclear power stations.
Nuclear power is our only serious option if our goal is to transition away from the use of fossil fuels while still supporting our ever growing energy grid. Small modular reactors are currently the most scalable, cost effective, and safe option for the reintroduction of nuclear power in the United States and around the world.