A look at Small Modular Reactors, the nuclear industry's coveted new gem
Small Modular Reactors (hereinafter “SMRs”) are a promising new technology in the field of nuclear energy, offering a number of potential benefits over traditional large nuclear reactors. They are smaller in size and can be mass-produced, making them more affordable and easier to deploy. In addition, their modular design allows for a greater degree of flexibility in terms of deployment and operation. However, as no technology is flawless, there are also disadvantages to SMRs that are worth addressing.
In this newsletter, we will explore the latest developments in the field of SMRs and discuss their potential impact on the future of energy production. We will also delve into the challenges and opportunities associated with this technology, and consider its current and hypothetical future legal framework.
What exactly are SMRs?
SMRs are new generation modular reactors, ten times smaller and ten times less powerful than conventional nuclear power plants. They have a power output ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred megawatts, and are built in series, by modules prefabricated in a factory. The name SMR does not refer to a particular technology, and can therefore include pressurized water reactors, fast neutron reactors, thorium reactors, etc.
Advantages and promises
These new technologies are presented as having many advantages and are gradually becoming the solution to the problems posed by conventional reactors. These positive points are, inter alia;
- Economic advantage
The main advantage of this new generation of reactors is their competitive price, which makes them accessible with a low investment.
Indeed, SMRs are designed to be built in a factory setting and then shipped to the site where they will be installed.
One potential benefit of SMRs is that they may be able to take advantage of economies of scale in their manufacturing process. Because they require less civil engineering than a conventional power plant, the production process can therefore be optimized and standardized. This process may lead to cost savings compared to traditional nuclear reactors, which are built on site.
In addition, because SMRs are smaller in size, they may be able to be produced in larger quantities, which could further drive down costs through the benefits of mass production.
It is easy to see how this process offers important perspectives in terms of cost reduction and construction time.
- Safety advantage
Because of their lower power and smaller size, there is less heat to be dissipated in the event of an accident, which means that safety systems based on passive natural convection can be used, i.e., no electrically driven pump is needed to cool the plant. It was precisely the failure of the cooling system that caused the Fukushima accident. Nor is there any need for a huge concrete enclosure like for the conventional reactors: a simple metal cover is enough to guarantee « zero radioactive release » even in the event of a serious accident.
- Practical advantage
They can be exported to developing countries that do not have an electricity grid and can be used easily on industrial sites, to allow them to avoid using fossil fuels, to desalinate water or even to produce heat. These are markets where nuclear power is currently non-existent.
In addition, SMRs are flexible and autonomous, and can easily respond to fluctuating energy demands. They are intended to complement current power generation solutions.
- Investment advantage
Several States have for some time now shown a keen interest in investing in SMRs. We note, in particular, that ;
– The US Department of Energy (DOE) has announced plans to invest $230 million in research and development of SMRs over the next five years. The DOE plans to work with private companies and research institutions to develop advanced SMR technologies and to accelerate their deployment1.
– In November 2021, the UK government announced plans to invest £210 million in research and development of SMRs. The government plans to establish a national SMR research and development center and to support the development of advanced SMR technologies2 .
– France has openly expressed its increased interest in SMRs, their financing and development. Emmanuel Macron, visiting the General Electric site in February 2022, announced that « a call for projects will be supported amounting to one billion euros by France 2030 » to carry out this project for the creation of an SMR prototype. France has already raised 20 million euros, including 10 million from the state, to finance a first phase of reflection on the development of SMRs of 150 to 170 megawatts. 1 billion euros will be invested by France between now and 2030 to achieve this objective3 .
– In Canada, the Saskatchewan government has signed a memorandum of understanding and shared a feasibility report with a consortium of companies to explore the potential for building SMRs in the province. The consortium, which includes Candu Energy and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, plans to develop a small modular reactor design that could be used for electricity generation, hydrogen production, and other applications4 .
– Several companies, including NuScale Power and TerraPower, are making progress in the development of advanced SMR technologies. NuScale has received regulatory approval for its SMR design and is working on plans to build a demonstration plant in the US, while TerraPower is working on a travelling wave reactor design that could be used in SMR applications 5.
Cautiousness and reservations
Although all the above seems to draw a glorious and ideal profile of these new technologies, it is appropriate, in the interest of scientific integrity, to also mention the doubts and potential pitfalls that SMRs encounter or will encounter.
Indeed, as previously mentioned, their small size allows for a lower potential danger on several levels (financial, security, logistical).
However, by multiplying the number of installations and sites, one also multiplies the number of installations susceptible to cause an accident. The idea of locating reactors closer to needs is dangerous, since it is therefore necessary to locate these reactors in relatively isolated areas. In the end, the risk is more disseminated throughout a territory, including with respect to potential criminal acts.
Moreover, the multiplication of sites also generates a higher, rather than lower, need for qualified personnel. However, qualified personnel in this sector are sometimes scarce and difficult to recruit in large numbers.
Concerning the export of SMRs to developing countries, one can wonder about the real opportunity that this represents, considering that these countries can directly develop a network adapted to function with renewable energies, which technologies are already available. Furthermore, the adoption of these SMR technologies for these countries would require them to acquire the skills and organization necessary to control the safety of the installations, and even a construction, maintenance, operation and fuel chain management system if these countries do not want to depend on foreign powers for their electricity supply.
Finally, a question that is not often addressed in the discussion of SMRs, and which is nevertheless quite crucial, is that of the future of the radioactive waste produced, and the need to extract uranium (with all the potential pollution6 that goes with it) to operate these reactors. On these subjects, SMRs do not provide a different answer than the largest current reactors. On the contrary, the wider dissemination of reactors brings an additional layer of complexity to the management of this problem.
What is the current international legal framework for SMRs?
This question has recently been the subject of a study by the JRC of the European Commission.
There is currently no international legal framework specifically designed for SMRs, but they are subject to the same international legal frameworks that apply to other types of nuclear technology. These frameworks include, to name but a few, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which seeks to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology), the Convention on Nuclear Safety, (which sets safety standards for nuclear power plants), the Joint Convention (JC) on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, he the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident, the Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage (…) and so on.
In the JRC study, we learn that despite the plethora of international instruments, none of them consistently address SMRs.
Nevertheless, SMRs raise a number of legal issues, and this lack of a specific legal framework is therefore a potential source of danger or spillover.
One major legal issue surrounding SMRs is liability. In the event of an accident, it is important to determine who is responsible for any damages or injuries that may occur. In many countries, nuclear operators are required to have insurance or other financial security measures in place to cover potential liabilities. However, the amount of liability coverage required can vary from country to country, and there may be debates about how much is sufficient to cover the potential risks of SMRs.
Another legal issue that may arise with SMRs is the question of waste disposal. Nuclear waste is highly radioactive and must be properly stored and disposed of in order to protect the environment and public health. This can be a complex and controversial issue, as there is currently no permanent solution for the disposal of high-level nuclear waste. SMRs may generate smaller amounts of waste than traditional nuclear power plants, but they will still produce some waste that needs to be managed safely.
It is this kind of legal impasse that demonstrates the clear need for adjustments or interpretation tools in order to cover SMRs in a more systemic way. This goal could not be reached without the careful combination of a series of complementary sectors. A technical perspective, of course, will be essential. Moreover, the circle of discussion around SMRs should be widened to include, in addition to the binding instruments directly regulating energy law, branches such as maritime law, environmental law, as well as European standards.
In this way, all the sectors to which the use of nuclear technology relates will be able to bring to the table their share of legal recommendations, thus strengthening the need for the birth of this instrument.
Modular reactors have major advantages directly related to their design, and present three economic levers: modularity, mass production and standardization.
Their modularity allows a simplified assembly adapted to local needs: several SMRs can be matched to obtain a greater amount of energy. Their flexibility, operated by advanced technology, simplifies maintenance and reduces its costs
These small nuclear reactors are manufactured in series, a faster, more reliable production method whose visibility allows better control of costs and deadlines. This manufacturing method optimizes the entire production chain, while simplifying transport (by road or river) and the installation of equipment on site.
The standardization of SMRs allows them to be used in several regions or countries, which represents a major market opportunity for manufacturers.
Therefore, cheaper to build, safer, easily integrated into the grid, these mini-reactors seem to be the perfect decarbonized alternative to coal or gas power plants whose days are numbered in the coming years.
However, since no technology is perfect and free of flaws, it is worth remembering that SMRs still raise questions in terms of expanding the risk area: the population is sometimes reluctant to install nuclear structures near their homes, adding a limit to the implementation of SMRs. The need to mobilize more qualified personnel is also a constraint that should not be overlooked in the design of SMRs. It should also be kept in mind that other environmental issues remain, such as uranium mining and waste management, which has not yet been resolved for either existing or new generation plants.
In terms of legal framework, SMRs are currently internationally regulated by analogy with conventional reactors. There is a pressing need for a more precise and rigorous legal framework for these technologies in order to ensure their correct production, use, and consequences.
To guarantee the success of SMRs according to the governmental will and the key actors of the energy sector, it will be necessary to rely on the strengths of this energy solution and to overcome the obstacles posed.
Stay tuned for the upcoming newsflash addressing with further development the legal framework of SMRs !
6 It should be noted that not all uranium extraction technologies are systematically polluting; some of them even have low pollution output, such as “In Situ Leach”. In-situ leaching (ISL), also called in-situ recovery (ISR) or solution mining, is a mining process used to recover minerals such as uranium through boreholes drilled into a deposit, in situ. ISL works by artificially dissolving minerals occurring naturally in a solid state. For more information see : https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/mining-of-uranium/in-situ-leach-mining-of-uranium.aspx
Charles merlin, « Les petits réacteurs modulaires dans le monde ; perspectives géopolitiques, technologiques, industrielles et énergétiques, », Etude de l’IFRI, mai 2019.
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