The search continues for a simple technical fix for climate change. The Small Modular Reactor (SMR) is one of these. But it appears they will cause more problems than they solve.
The Oeko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology) is a non-profit, private-sector environmental research institute in Germany
Cross-posted from the Oeko Insitute website
Translated by BRAVE NEW EUROPE
Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are low-power nuclear power plants whose development dates back to the 1950s. Currently, the SMR concept is receiving renewed attention as they are promoted as safe and climate-friendly power generators.
So what is to be made of SMRs? Together with the Technical University of Berlin and the Physikerbüro Bremen, the Öko-Institut has produced a scientific report commissioned by the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management (BASE).
In it, the scientists provide an overview of the reactor concepts currently being pursued internationally under the term SMR, a scientific assessment of possible areas of application and the associated safety issues and risks.
SMR: The working definition for the report
The scientists examined 31 of a total of 136 identified concepts in detail. Everyone is talking about “SMR” today, but there is still no internationally uniform definition for this term. The spectrum of concepts covered by Small Modular Reactors ranges from “today’s” light-water reactors with low power to different types of concepts for which there is little or no previous industrial experience, for example high-temperature or molten-salt reactor concepts.
In the report, SMRs are defined as follows: “‘Small Modular Reactors’ are reactors in which a single reactor has an electrical output of less than 300 megawatts electrical (MWe) or a thermal output of less than 1,000 megawatts thermal (MWth). These can be both water-cooled and other (non-water-cooled) reactor designs.”
No realistic answer to the climate crisis
SMRs are also proposed as a solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the global electricity supply. Here, the electricity production achieved with them would be relevant: Today’s new nuclear power plants have electrical outputs in the range of 1,000 to 1,600 MWe. In contrast, the SMR concepts considered in the study envisage planned electrical outputs of 1.5 to 300 MWe. Accordingly, to provide the same electrical output by the factor 3 1,000 more plants would be required.
Instead of today’s 400 or so reactors with high output, this would mean the construction of many thousands to tens of thousands of SMR plants. However, questions about safety, transport, dismantling and interim and final storage have not yet been clarified.
Economic efficiency: Are SMRs worthwhile?
Small Modular Reactors promise shorter production times and lower production costs due to their modularity. Individual components or even the entire SMR are to be industrially (mass) produced and transported to the selected sites for installation as needed.
Due to the low electrical output, the construction costs for SMRs are – relatively speaking – higher than for large nuclear power plants. A production cost calculation taking into account scale, mass and learning effects from the nuclear industry suggests that a very large number of SMRs – on average several thousand – would have to be produced before it would be worthwhile to enter SMR production.
Speed thanks to SMRs?
Another major justification for the development of SMR concepts is the expectation of shorter time horizons, in particular shorter construction times and possibly also less complicated dismantling. Looking at plants currently under construction or in operation, this assumption does not appear to be empirically founded: planning, development and construction times usually exceed the original time horizons many times over.
Special application scenarios such as modularity, new manufacturing processes, materials and technological solutions for the safety functions often require new regulatory approaches. With a planned worldwide spread of SMRs, this will give rise to completely new issues for the responsible licensing and regulatory authorities.
Overall, SMRs could potentially achieve safety advantages over large-scale nuclear power plants, as they have a lower radioactive inventory per reactor and aim for a higher safety level through targeted simplifications and increased use of passive systems.
However, the large number of reactors to provide significant amounts of electrical power and their planned global use will again increase the risk many times over. Many SMR concepts also pursue the claim of reduced safety requirements, for example with regard to diversity in safety systems. Some SMR concepts even demand that current requirements be waived, for example in the area of plant-internal emergency protection. Others completely dispense with external emergency protection planning.
In the event of a worldwide proliferation of Small Modular Reactors, the danger of proliferation – i.e. use for military purposes such as the production of nuclear weapons – increases.
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