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Smaller nuclear reactors may hold big promise Vast amounts of new power generati ...

Smaller nuclear reactors may hold big promise Vast amounts of new power generation capacity will be needed globally in the years ahead both as a result of growth of GDP in the developing world and the developed world’s need to replace existing generation plant which is nearing end of life. According to a research note from energy business advisor Douglas-Westwood, small modular reactors (SMRs) with a capacity of up to 300 MW may have considerable potential in specific markets. The rising cost of traditional fuels is exacerbated by ageing infrastructure, most notably in the US and Europe. In Europe, many coal and hydro power plants are more than 30 years old and are life expired. About a third of the coal and gas power capacities are older than 20 years, but only 15% are 10 years or younger. It is estimated that approximately 267 GW of generating capacity should be replaced through 2025. While some countries have, post Fukushima, decided against nuclear in the energy mix, others continue to enjoy a ‘nuclear renaissance’ - at least in terms of government approval. Nuclear offers reliable base-load at a predictable cost and some countries have ambitions to add vast new nuclear energy capacity. India, for example, anticipates increasing its capacity from 6.8 GW in 2011 to 399 GW in 2050 and has set a target of 25% of electricity coming from nuclear energy by 2050 as part of its energy security policy. China has recently signalled that it will be re-starting its nuclear build programme and plans to increase its capacity six-fold to 60 GW by 2020. ‘SMRs have a part to play. These units will offer utilities a number of benefits, including short lead-times, scalability, the option to fuel for life, built-in storage for the life of the plant, simple and safe plant design, and a more-straightforward financing process,’ says Douglas-Westwood Director Steve Robertson. ‘The World Nuclear Association (WNA) currently identifies 18 SMR designs utilizing a range of technologies as well advanced.’ In 2010, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) identified that SMRs were ‘economically competitive and affordable’ (easier to finance) and offered ‘enhanced safety/robustness’. ‘Research published by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) showed nuclear favourable on a levellized capital cost basis, $90.1/MWh for nuclear compared to $93 for coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS), $195 for solar photovoltaic and $210 for offshore wind,’ said Robertson. The main geographic focus for SMRs at present is the US. The US Department for Energy (DOE) has received three bids for funds to be allocated to SMR projects which could be developed, licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and be commercially operational by 2022. Whilst the US is likely to see the first installed units, scenarios that particularly favour use of SMRs include smaller countries with growing energy demand and infrastructure (grid) restrictions; remote communities such as islands and essential services such as military facilities, hospitals, desalinization plant; together with major power-hungry industrial projects. Challenges do exist for SMRs. Uncertainty within the political environment is the single biggest threat to an economical international nuclear industry. The economics of SMRs are also yet to be proved and furthermore, a first-of-a-kind plant will not prove the economic benefits that will come from building many reactor cores off-site in factories to a common approved design and shipped to site by rail, truck or barge. However, if the economics of SMRs can be realized then they have a good future, expanding the nuclear option to smaller countries and new markets and applications.

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