Once they are mass-produced in factories, SMRs could be deployed worldwide to provide low-carbon energy.
Just before the so-called Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a 100,000-year period some 55 million years ago, sea surface and land air temperatures around the planet suddenly increased by more than 5°C, making the weather at the Arctic not unlike the weather in today’s subtropical areas. Earth’s climate became so warm that palm trees and crocodiles thrived at the North Pole, where today snow and ice reign.
The cause of this sudden spike in global temperatures was a massive release of greenhouse gases, likely as a result of volcanic activity. Now consider this: we are pumping nearly 10 times more CO2 into the atmosphere than the amount emitted during the climate catastrophe of the PETM, new research indicates. If we carry on burning fossil fuels at current rates, then by the middle of the next century Earth’s climate will have come to resemble what it was during the PETM with catastrophic consequences for life on the planet as we know it.
We’ll need to decarbonise and fast. Yet most current decarbonisation efforts are woefully short of meeting required targets. Worse: many such efforts are misguided, experts say. Governments in several industrialised countries like Germany are pinning their hopes on renewables alone, even though current levels of technological development mean sun rays and wind cannot meet vast global energy needs on their own.
Consequently, numerous experts and members of industry have been calling for a larger share for nuclear power in future energy plans to fill the gap. One such prominent voice is Bill Gates, the American investor and philanthropist. “Global emissions of greenhouse gases went up in 2018. For me, that just reinforces the fact that the only way to prevent the worst climate-change scenarios is to get some breakthroughs in clean energy,” the Microsoft cofounder recently wrote in an open letter.
“Some people think we have all the tools we need, and that driving down the cost of renewables like solar and wind solves the problem. I am glad to see solar and wind getting cheaper and we should be deploying them wherever it makes sense,” Gates elucidated.
“But solar and wind are intermittent sources of energy, and we are unlikely to have super-cheap batteries anytime soon that would allow us to store sufficient energy for when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing,” he added.
Ironically, even as parts of the developed world are turning their back on nuclear energy, economic powerhouses in the developing world are embracing it. Both in China and India, two of the world’s fastest-growing economies, governments have been investing in new nuclear power plants. So while nuclear power is being scaled back across much of Europe and the United States, it is just coming into its own elsewhere.
“Globally the amount of electricity generated by nuclear power has been increasing, much driven by strong expansion in Asia,” Ville Tulkki, a nuclear safety expert at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, tells Sustainability Times. “The reasons for why some nuclear power plants are being shut down vary, from the availability of cheap shale gas combined with a lack of [a coherent] climate policy in the U.S. to some European countries’ policy decisions to move away from nuclear,” the Finnish expert notes.
“At the same time, nuclear new build has had challenges with first-of-a-kind plants, the building of supply chains and the need for large upfront investments. However, both of these trends are turning,” Tulkki explains. “We’ve just seen several decisions to postpone nuclear closures announced earlier; for instance in France and Spain. The European Commission has stated that nuclear has a role to play in Europe in 2050, which is not a small issue given some member states’ opposition to such policies. In the U.S. there have been several instances of state-level policies beginning to take all clean energy sources, including nuclear, into account.”
Among the most promising trends in the nuclear industry is the development of advanced small modular reactors (SMRs), which are aimed at providing clean, safe and affordable power in custom-made packages. SMRs come in a variety of sizes and can produce anywhere from a few megawatts to as much as 300 megawatts of electricity. Capable of being preassembled at relatively low costs in factories, these small reactors can function as standalone units or as integral parts of a larger plant.
Because of their built-in versatility, SMRs can be deployed in various geographical settings and tailored to specific local energy needs. Importantly, SMRs can be situated in remote and inhospitable areas where other low-carbon power sources would prove inadequate.
“The greatest advantage of SMRs is that they expand the application range of nuclear energy,” Tulkki, who delivered a speech on SMRs at the Nordic Nuclear Forum 2019 in Helsinki in early February, observes in an interview with Sustainability Times. Conventional economies of scale in nuclear production makes sense, the expert argues, because as unit sizes increase, electricity costs decrease. Yet manufacturing a series of smaller standard-issue reactors in factories could also reduce production costs while simultaneously ensuring high safety standards.
“Smaller unit power enables the achievement of safety standards with simpler systems,” Tulkki explains. “This is because the power produced is relative to volume, and the conduction potential is relative to surface area. This, in turn, makes innovative solutions possible. [These] new reactor technologies may enable simpler ways to ensure that safety standards are being upheld,” he adds.
Once they are mass-produced in factories, SMRs could be deployed worldwide to provide low-carbon energy, in tandem with renewable sources, in order to help us reduce our CO2 emissions drastically. The costs of doing so would hardly be prohibitive. “Smaller size translates into easier financing and more market opportunities, especially in countries that are just embarking on embracing nuclear power,” Tulkki says. “Should the benefits of serial production be realised, electricity produced by SMRs may also become cheaper than that produced by large nuclear power plants.”
Does this mean that nuclear power, if only in the form of mass-produced SMRs, should be factored far more prominently into future energy plans? Tulkki certainly thinks so. “Nuclear power is very likely to play a part of the future electricity supply. Its exact proportion will depend on local conditions and politics,” the Finnish expert says.
“Should SMRs be able to achieve the benefits of mass production, [thereby] providing standardised solutions to large numbers of customers, they may become mainstream in nuclear electricity production,” he adds. “Likely, there will be a combination of large light-water reactors and SMRs around the world. With a need for large-scale climate change mitigation, we are going to need all the tools we can get.”