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Small modular reactors are being considered as part of Australia's energy future, but there are none in operation in countries whose lead we might follow.

There’s plenty of excitement about small modular nuclear reactors, the problem is there just isn’t enough data about them, mainly because there are none operating in any OECD country. : Killian Karger via Unsplash Unsplash Licence There’s plenty of excitement about small modular nuclear reactors, the problem is there just isn’t enough data about them, mainly because there are none operating in any OECD country. : Killian Karger via Unsplash Unsplash Licence

Small modular reactors are being considered as part of Australia’s energy future, but there are none in operation in countries whose lead we might follow.

They’re being touted as the solution to kickstarting a nuclear power industry in Australia.

According to the Opposition’s Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Ted O’Brien, small modular reactors (SMR) could be built within a ten-year period if it wins the next election.

However, given the challenges in other countries, it would more likely take 20 years to commence commercial operation of a nuclear reactor in Australia from the time in-principle approval was reached.

To reach that starting point and enable detailed consideration of the challenges and costs of nuclear power, the existing legislative ban on nuclear power in Australia will need to be removed.

There are other obstacles.

While there’s plenty of excitement about SMRs, the problem is there just isn’t enough data about them, mainly because there are none operating in any OECD country.

And it’s unknown when any might be. Allison Macfarlane, former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, argues in her article, The end of Oppenheimer’s energy dream, that the proposal for SMRs to help us in the clean energy transition is fanciful.

The SMR furthest along the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approval process was from the US company NuScale.

However, NuScale had to re-start the approval process when it decided to increase its reactor rating from 50 MW to 77 MW. Worse, its first planned installation, in Utah, was cancelled last November when the initial cost blew out to USD$9 billion, corresponding to USD$20 billion (AUD$31 billion) per GW.

The only countries with working SMRs are China and Russia.

China has one demonstrator plant in operation and one demonstrator plant in construction. The 210 MW HTR-PM began construction in 2012 and operation commenced in 2023. The 125 MW ACP100 Linglong One commenced construction in 2021 and completion is expected in 2026.

Russia has one commercial plant in operation and one demonstrator in construction. The commercial plant, called the Akademik Lomonosov, started construction in 2007 and was connected to the electricity grid in far northeast Russia in 2019. It uses weapons-grade uranium and is wholly inappropriate for a country like Australia. The BREST-OD-300 demonstrator plant was approved in 2016, construction commenced in 2021 and it is expected to be completed in 2026.

How is the rest of the world placed?

Argentina: None in operation; one prototype in construction. The 32-MW, locally designed prototype reactor began construction in 2014 and is expected to commence non-commercial operation in 2027.

Canada: There are no SMR reactors in operation or construction. The Ontario Power Generation company plans to build a 300 MW reactor at an existing facility, but the regulator has not yet granted approval.

Small modular reactors from private companies

Private SMR developers divide into light-water reactors, which is the most commonly used, best understood technology, and advanced reactors that are pushing the design envelope either on the cooling (e.g., molten sodium) or the fuel (enriched above 5 percent).

GE-Hitachi is developing a light-water, 300 MW reactor. Design completion date and the cost per GW are unknown. Hearings for a licence to commence construction in Canada will not begin until later this year.

Rolls Royce is developing a light-water, 470 MW reactor. Design work commenced in 2015, and in 2023 the reactor design completed the first step of the UK approval process. Step 2 is expected this year. Final approval will only be issued after the completion of steps 3 and 4 of the Generic Design Assessment. The cost per GW is unknown.

Westinghouse has completed the design of a 300 MW pressurised light-water reactor. A preliminary application has been submitted to the NRC. If approved, it is likely to take several more years for final approval.

TerraPower and GE-Hitachi are co-developing the Natrium 345 MW reactor. Rather than commonly used commercial grade uranium enriched up to 5 percent, the Natrium uses uranium fuel enriched up to 20 percent. This fuel is only available from China and Russia. Efforts are underway to develop a US source of supply, expected by the end of this decade. TerraPower is in pre-application discussions with the NRC but has not submitted its application for approval.

There are other companies such as Holtec, Kairos and X-Energy that have committed to developing SMRs, but they are still in the design phase.

Summary: The US, Canada, UK, Finland, Norway, France and all other OECD nations have no SMRs in operation, none under construction and none approved by their country regulator.

Micro and large reactors

Micro reactors are intended to generate electrical power up to 10 MW per unit. Although companies such as Rolls Royce are developing these, there do not appear to be any commercial micro modular reactors that have completed their design.

That leaves full-scale reactors, which have also been mentioned as part of a possible Australian nuclear power play.

Korean company KEPCO builds most of the nuclear reactors in Korea and has now built one at Barakah in the United Arab Emirates. This 5.6 GW plant, scheduled to be completed this year, has taken 15 years to complete from the time the contract was signed.

It cost USD$24 billion (AUD$36 billion). At 5.6 GW, that is AUD$6.4 billion per GW. Given salaries and skills shortages in Australia, inflation, interest rates and our regulatory requirements, it would cost more and take longer in Australia.

The Hinkley C plant in the UK was supposed to be finished in 2017 but has been delayed again until 2031 – 23 years after approval. The estimated construction cost has ballooned to £46 billion (AUD$89 billion). At 3.2 GW, that is AUD$28 billion per GW.

In the US, the most recent nuclear reactors are the Vogtle 3 and 4 reactors, built at an existing facility that is home to the Vogtle 1 and 2 reactors. Both were anticipated to be in service in 2016. However, Vogtle 3 did not begin commercial operation until July 2023. Vogtle 4 is projected to commence operation in the second quarter of this year – 15 years after the construction contract was awarded.

Construction cost USD$34 billion (AUD$52 billion) for the combined 2.2 GW output of the two reactors, or AUD$24 billion per GW.

Construction of nuclear plants in the United States has declined dramatically over the years. Approximately 130 were built in the four decades from the mid 1950s to the mid 1990s. Only four commenced operation in the three decades from the mid 1990s to now, and at the time of writing there are no nuclear reactors under construction in the United States.

In France, only one nuclear power plant is under construction. The 1.65 GW Flamanville EPR reactor is hoped to be completed later this year, 17 years after construction began. The most recent cost estimate was AUD$22 billion, or AUD$13 billion per GW. No other nuclear power plants are planned in France.

These high costs and long delivery durations for full-scale reactors are the reasons SMRs are proposed as a way forward in Australia.

However, SMRs are a new technology. There are none in operation, under construction or approved in any OECD countries, thus it is not possible to estimate the costs or delivery schedules. NuScale’s investment to date suggests that the capital cost for the first units to be delivered will be very high.

The essential value proposition of SMRs is that they will be built using offsite, volume production, and thus in the long-term will benefit from economies of scale. It might be decades, though, for this benefit to be realised.

Even if the process of serious consideration of nuclear power in Australia is formalised, it will be essential to continue investing in solar and wind power to meet our clean energy transition targets this decade and next.

Dr Alan Finkel is Chair of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Biotechnology at The University of Queensland. He is Chair of Stile Education. He is a neuroscientist, engineer, entrepreneur and philanthropist. He is former Chancellor of Monash University and was Australia’s Chief Scientist from 2016 to 2020, during which time he led the National Electricity Market Review, the development of the National Hydrogen Strategy, the panel that advised the Australian Government on the Low Emissions Technology Roadmap, chaired the National (Covid) Contact Tracing Review, was deputy chair of Innovation and Science Australia, and chaired the National Review of Industry and School Partnerships in STEM Education.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

Editors Note: In the story “Nuclear future” sent at: 22/03/2024 13:37.

This is a corrected repeat.

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