Addressing Climate Change: A close brief look at the future of small nuclear energy : Part II

Into the Future with Small Nuclear Energy

As of 2020, Nuclear energy is the newest energy source humans were able to use to provide a reliable base load electrical power. Humans discovered fire 2 million years ago, and then started using fire to produce steam for motion only 300 year ago, humans then discovered electricity around 260 years ago, then used steam produced by fire to produce electricity only around 140 years ago.

By the early 19th century humans mastered electricity and used it to provide lighting. This resulted in electrification of many sections of the economy, but only in the 1940s and 1950s humans were able to tame nuclear energy. The world discovered nuclear energy in 1942, then in 1952 the world had its first sustained nuclear reaction, this was the year where the world had its first nuclear reactor that could produce electricity. Nuclear energy has been in use for only 60 years compared to fire which has been around for millions of years. In the grand scheme of history, humans are just taking their first baby steps with nuclear energy. This represents a significant opportunity for the world to capitalize on this new form of energy and use it to provide electricity and power. 

This brings us to newest way to move forward with nuclear energy, small modular nuclear reactors for mainstream electricity and heat generation. The idea of a small nuclear reactor is actually not very new. Small nuclear reactors have been used for some time in other applications, these small reactors offered small to medium scale reliable, and unintentionally carbon-free, electric power. Small nuclear reactors have been notably used in nuclear submarines,  aircraft carriers, small nuclear reactors are also used in producing radioactive material that’s being used for medical diagnostics and treatment applications. Why couldn’t small nuclear reactors then provide countries with carbon-free, distributed, and reliable electricity and heat? Usually the first that comes to mind when mentioning reliable carbon free power is hydro power, this power comes form of hydro dams which can theoretically operate 24/7 to provide reliable electric load. However, hydro power is limited by Geography which dictates where it is possible to construct a hydro dam and a power station. Another carbon-free option that is much less popular but exists is geothermal power which uses energy from dead deep layers of earth to extract heat and produce electricity. The third option is nuclear energy which is carbon free and can be deployed at larger scales. However, large scale nuclear projects require extensive upfront capital investment as well as a long period of completions compared with other options like solar and wind. This reality pushed many into looking into smaller scale nuclear projects as an alternative.

‘’The Idea of a small nuclear reactor is actually not very new.’’

When small is better

There are a few advantages that small nuclear reactors offer over other types of carbon free electricity. First, like other large scale nuclear, they offer high density energy production per unit volume. With small nuclear reactors, their power station can fit a million times the energy density of comparable applications like solar or wind energy. The second advantage that small reactors have over solar and wind reliability. They are able to produce dispatchable non intermittent reliable electricity and heat for long periods of time. Solar energy generation requires sunlight for electricity production, meanwhile wind power requires wind blowing at specific range of speeds to produce electricity, this is more problematic to predict and requires some type of energy storage to work with some level of reliability.

The nuclear industry, generally speaking, as overall is well developed compared to other types of carbon-free energy industries. First, the supply chain of nuclear energy is well established, more importantly, there is enough nuclear fuel that can sustain global nuclear energy generation for very long periods of time. These nuclear fuel resources are present in no conflict countries like Canada and Australia. The world can utilize this effective supply chain to be able to build small modular reactors.  

Why Modular?

Compare this to other types of carbon-free solutions. First, small modular nuclear power would be faster to deploy than big nuclear that usually take 5 to 10 or maybe 15 years to build. A small modular reactor would take much less time to deploy, hopefully in 2 years or 3 years or at maximum 4 years. The reactors would be built off site in factories with faster standardized manufacturing processes so they are much faster to deploy. The new small modular reactors that are currently being designed have enhanced passive safety systems. These systems don’t require external human intervention for the reactors to operate safely. They are designed with safety in mind and considering all the drawbacks of other reactor designs. In addition, some designs will be using spent nuclear fuel at larger reactors which will help solve nuclear waste challenges at existing large nuclear facilities and mitigate the challenges of nuclear waste management for these new small reactors.   

If we compare this technology to other carbon-free solutions that help mitigate climate change, the bigger advantage for using small modular reactors is less known to the non technical crowd. We believe that this critical advantage is the most important advantage that these small modular nuclear reactor technologies have to offer. The advantage is the ability to produce high temperature heat simultaneously with cheaper electricity. This is very critical to the zero-carbon energy transition. There are no other carbon-free energy solutions right now that could produce high temperature heat that can be used for industrial applications like the steel industry or the glass industry. Humans cannot use solar energy or wind energy for these applications to produce heat and electricity because it is simply very inefficient and not economical. In addition, the small modular nuclear reactor’s advantage for several manufacturing industries out there is that it is a reliable option where these reactor’s cores are going to be fueled or replaced anywhere between 8 to 20 years. In a 20 years example, where this is done once  or twice for the whole life of a building or an industrial complex.

30 Years ahead

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommended to the United Nations that the world limit global warming to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid adverse effects on both humans and the environment. This target is possible, but would require the world reaching zero carbon emissions by the year 2050, as well as fast-tracked and extensive changes in all aspects of society. The prospects for humans to mitigate climate change in the next 30 years can be enhanced by the following: most human related economic activities will transition to be electrified, humans will use hydro power and energy storage where applicable and Geothermal power to produce energy for large scale base energy needs. These are expected to be the dominant power sources for a lot of large-scale applications.

For mega cities and large regions solar and wind will play a huge role in mitigating climate change when coupled with the energy storage solutions (battery and thermal or storage solutions). The last piece of the puzzle and one of the most important pieces of the puzzle is small modular reactors, which will provide high temperature heat that can be used for heavy industries where other forms of carbon free solutions cannot work and would provide reliable cheaper long term energy sources. The following remains unanswered for the small modular nuclear reactor technology:

  • Ownership Models, would this technology be allowed to be deployed by private enterprises or will it be mainly publicly owned, or would it be a public/private partnership?
  • Regulation Leniency, would the technology be allowed to be deployed worldwide in a form of distributed energy systems where facilities are built in factory complexes, and in the heart of cities?
  • True total cost of ownership including construction and operation, would this technology have an economical competitive advantage over other zero carbon solutions? 

The answers to these questions will determine if the small modular reactor technology will be a game changer in our future.