Electricity

Who will win the race to install first small modular nuclear reactor

Who will win the race to install first small modular nuclear reactor Holtec SMR

Photo: Holtec International

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February 12, 2023

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Published:

February 12, 2023

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Judging by recent announcements, small modular nuclear reactors (SMR) are pushing ahead strongly on both sides of the Atlantic. It remains to be seen where the first SMR will be installed – in North America or in Europe, and by whom. BGEN is closely following these developments.

US serious about SMR

In the United States, on January 20, 2023, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued its final rule by which it certified NuScale Power’s SMR, VOYGR™. This decision will allow the US electric utilities to use NuScale’s SMR design when asking permission to build and operate a reactor.

According to the US Department of Energy, NuScale’s VOYGR™ SMR power plant can house up to 12 factory-built power modules that are about three times smaller than a conventional reactor. Each power module is self-sufficient and requires no additional water, power, or operator action.

Europe strikes back

Meanwhile, on the other side of Atlantic in Czech Republic and in Romania, as BGEN already reported the state-owned Nuclearelectrica partnered with NuScale to install a NuScale’s VOYGR-6 model of 462 MW in total, with a possibility to supplement it with 80 MW in capacity from renewable sources.

Practically all European countries signed the so-called “123 Agreements”, a peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement for transfers of nuclear material or equipment from the United States.

The Agreements are meant to help advance U.S. nonproliferation principles. 123 Agreements make projects such as those in Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria possible, and without complications with siting and with meeting requirements of Nuclear Regulatory Commission that often slow down deployment of nuclear projects in the US.

Can nuclear replace coal in Southeast Europe

Another company in the race to install first commercial SMR is Holtec International, with its trump card, the SMR-160. Holtec claims that their system is simpler than the currently operating reactors, with no need for active pumps, which makes them more reliable. The SMR-160 has a rated electrical output of 160 MWe.

For comparison, generators installed at Serbian thermal power plant Nikola Tesla A near Obrenovac are rated between 210 and 308.5 MW. Holtec claims that the SMR-160 would enable any coal-fired plant to be repurposed by replacing its coal-fired boiler with clean steam from the SMR-160. This sounds as an interesting proposition for Southeast Europe with its many aging coal-fired power plants.

Nuclear and renewables – an open, yet harmonious marriage

SMR, given its stable base load, makes a perfect partner of renewable energy sources, complementing some of their well-documented downsides, such as intermittency. Interplay between nuclear and renewable is an appealing concept for countries that mull over tradeoffs between system resilience, energy security, and environmental performance.

On 10 February 2023 the United States Energy Association (USEA) organized a virtual press briefing on SMR.

On that occasion, Dr Rick Springman, Senior Vice President of international projects of Holtec International said: “We should build as much renewable energy – wind and solar – as we can in the near term. But we must recognize thar we can do so up to a degree. Each additional renewable has a higher incremental cost. At some point – say, 30% of penetration of renewables – we reach a cliff. Nuclear energy – and SMR in particular – can fill this gap that no renewable energy can.”

It is hoped that SMR will drive progress in the future nuclear power sector and that they will become the key building block of a new decarbonized and resilient energy system. The SMR technology is still in its infancy, mostly applied in pilot projects for now. There are no such nuclear power plants yet in Europe, but many countries, including some in Southeast Europe, are interested.

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