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Small Modular Nuclear Reactors: A Giant Leap Towards Sustainable Electricity

Sandeep Sharma

Nuclear Energy: Remote, off-grid, rough terrain, dense forests…when you think of these adjectives, does it sound difficult to have electricity for the communities living there? Is it fair to eliminate such places from the national electrical distribution grid for these reasons? What if there was a way to power such areas in a way that is environmentally conscious, inexpensive, and reliable? Does that sound too good to be true? 

The answer is ‘nuclear’, specifically Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). As the name suggests, these are factory built and then assembled on-site. They are scalable from 2 MWe to 300 MWe depending on requirements. The only similarity with conventional nuclear plants is that they produce energy from nuclear fission. The technology used in SMRs is simple and inherently safe but the main difference is a much smaller footprint. 

SMRs in the Design Stage

Currently, there are many companies all around the world in various stages of designing and implementing SMRs. Governments see them as a potential solution for future energy requirements. These plants are generally safer than conventional plants and most of them will have remote monitoring functionality as well. Depending on the size of the SMR, they require minimal on-site personnel. Some of these reactors will be capable of running without refueling for up to 30 years. Once they have run out of fuel, the module with the spent fuel can be replaced with a new module and will be ready for service. These advantages make SMR a cost-viable option, especially when considering the other option in these remote areas would be diesel generators which have significant environmental and health impacts and have highly volatile operating costs as we are currently seeing. 

Costs associated with SMRs are reduced due to various reasons such as:

  • SMRs are factory-built, therefore manufacturing costs will be reduced due to the scale of production
  • Modules can be like plug-and-play so assembly on-site will require days or months instead of years
  • Due to their physical size, they will not need a lot of land resources. They could even be built underground in sensitive areas
  • No need for re-fueling capability as the fuel module can be replaced when required
  • Lower development costs as well due to smaller reactivity needed to produce power, therefore no requirement of complex active safety systems, and most designs will only require passive safety systems
  • Lower operating costs due to remote monitoring capability and minimal personnel requirement
  • No need for infrastructure development prior to power production such as expensive electrical transmission lines, roads, etc

The environmental benefits should also be taken into account as nuclear power does not produce any emissions; some designs do not have cooling water requirements so the threat of spills to the environment will be eliminated. These advantages make a strong case for environmentally conscious developing nations in Asia to implement SMRs in their energy plans. With the current climate crisis and the need to hit carbon neutrality globally, SMRs may just be the answer. These projects might even provide a means for economic expansion. 

Asian countries have several potential areas where SMRs can provide power such as:

  • Mining operations in remote locations
  • Small communities in mountainous villages with fragile ecosystems
  • Tourist hubs on small islands
  • Power-hungry de-salination operations
  • Electrolysis process for future hydrogen fuel production
  • Environmentally protected forested areas

Spreading Awareness Among the General Masses

Educating the general public and eliminating the misconceptions about nuclear power should be the first step in Asian countries, but this can be overcome. As an example, there are currently many countries including some in Asia that have nuclear-powered submarines in their naval fleet, these have proven to be highly reliable, they do not require refueling for many years and they operate in extremely remote locations which makes them easy to compare to SMRs. These nuclear submarines are generally a sense of pride for any nation; similarly, acceptance of SMRs should also come with education.

The Way Forward in Nuclear Energy

In conclusion, there are clearly several advantages of SMRs when compared to a conventional power plant. Yes, conventional power plants pound for pound are cheaper to run and a traditional nuclear plant would also produce less nuclear waste than an SMR would. Still, they are not always a viable solution as they require major infrastructure to already be in place, long construction periods, and overall, much bigger budget requirements. For smaller, faster to construct, low environmental impact, and ease of operation; SMR is the answer.

The author is based in Toronto, Canada, and is an Authorized Nuclear Operator (CNSC) and an Entrepreneur affiliated with the Indo-Canadian Corridor for Nuclear and SMR technology. He is part of the elite group of Nuclear Operators having a Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s License to manage CANDU Rectors and working at the world’s largest operating nuclear power plant – Bruce Power. 

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