“When compared with standard nuclear power plants, SMRs have several distinct advantages,” a Finnish nuclear safety expert says.
The Akademik Lomonosov, a Russian floating nuclear power plant, is the first of its kind in the world but may not be the last. Constructed in St. Petersburg, the plant is on its way to the Arctic Circle where, come December, it is due to provide heat and electricity to a community of 5,000 people in Russia’s northernmost town, the port of Pevek in the Chukotka Region on the East Siberian Sea.
The plant’s two reactors could provide a town of as many as 100,000 people with enough electricity all year round, according to its constructors. “The capacity of the floating nuclear power plant is higher than the current need for Pevek,” said Vitaly Trutnev, head of the construction and operation of the floating nuclear power plant.
Yet the excess capacity is no mere overkill. The floating plant’s progress is being monitored by energy experts and investors alike because the ship-borne plant could help usher in a new world for small nuclear modular reactors (SMRs), which could bring cheap and reliable energy to far-flung reaches of the planet.
SMRs can come with different capacities, from small to fairly large power outputs, and can be adapted for various local requirements. Small reactors could be used to supplement existing power supplies such as renewables like solar and wind. As another advantage, they can be preassembled in factories and shipped for assembly on site.
This versatility makes them ideal for locations where no other reliable sources of power are available, including the Arctic, argues Ville Tulkki, a nuclear safety expert at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. “Some reactors are designed to be placed next to each other as part of a larger power plant, but there are also reactors that are designed to stand alone as a single power plant,” he explained at the Nordic Nuclear Forum 2019 in Helsinki in early February.
“SMRs also come in a wide variety of different designs with respect to their size, the coolants they use, and the fuel form they use,” Tulkki added. “So ‘SMR’ is an umbrella term, and some use this term to mean light-water reactors, and others use it as a term for almost everything. But [SMRs have] the connotation of something modern, something new.”
Not surprisingly, investors are taking notice. Gary Bergstrom, a prominent investor who is working on ways to bring cheap energy to poorer nations and communities, is backing a plan to mass-produce SMRs at a shipyard in South Korea for delivery to various corners of the planet by sea. A relatively modest investment could yield nuclear power plant designs that could provide electricity reliably for only about 3 cents a kilowatt-hour. A fully functional 500-megawatt prototype plant could be available in four years, according to Bergstrom.
“Our major commercial focus is not on the U.S. or other developed economies,” Bergstrom said. “We’re focused on emerging markets where there are huge power needs.”