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Making a Big Difference: Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

Small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) are a convenient, cost-effective and low-emission energy solution that is expected to revitalize the nuclear industry worldwide.

Much like regular nuclear power plants, SMRs harness nuclear fission to generate heat and produce energy. However, they are a fraction of the size (with about a third of the production capacity) of regular plants, meaning they can be installed in locations that were previously inaccessible to nuclear energy. Reactor units can be manufactured and then shipped and installed on site, making them more affordable than custom-designed large-scale plants.

Photo of Small Nuclear Reactor

While nuclear technology has been around for 70 years, interest and investment in smaller reactors is only just gathering pace. Thanks to their smaller scale, modular composition and wider technological innovations to improve safety, SMRs are less vulnerable to the critiques historically faced by full-scale nuclear reactors – that they are too costly and unsafe.

In 2022, many countries are investing in SMRs as the most reliable route towards meeting increasingly ambitious global targets to reduce carbon emissions. Smaller installations generating stable nuclear power are also a natural complement to the intermittent output of renewables.

New-generation power for established global players

Last year, an SMR milestone was reached in north-east Russia where offshore floating SMRs installed by national nuclear power provider Rosatom have replaced a coal plant. The modular plants provide electricity for 50,000 people living in remote areas in the province Chukotka.

Photo of Barge

The company is now aiming for a first SMR on land to be completed by 2028 in the neighboring province of Sakha.

Many other countries are also embracing this new nuclear technology. The US has invested more than $400 million since 2014 to accelerate the development and deployment of SMRs, and light water-cooled SMRs are likely to be in use by the end of this decade

In the UK, engineering company Rolls Royce is developing SMRs that could supplement the UK electricity grid by 2030. It estimates that each SMR – roughly the size of two soccer pitches - could power one million homes.

In France, a global leader in traditional nuclear energy production, national energy provider EDF also plans to have up to six SMRs in use nationally by 2030, alongside renewable energy sources, reducing overall reliance on fossil fuels.

Adaptable, reliable – and investment-friendly

This broad consensus is evidence that modular reactors offer a practical and effective solution for the transition to low-carbon energy production. Nuclear is widely acknowledged by scientists and governments as a highly reliable, affordable and low-emission source, and increasing use of nuclear energy is essential to reducing use of fossil fuels.

A 2021 UN report found that international climate objectives will not be met if nuclear power is not used, and smaller reactors have a specific role to play. The OECD reported that "rapid SMR uptake" specifically could help avoid up to 15 gigatons of carbon emissions by 2050.

This is due to numerous benefits of using SMR technology. As well as being more versatile due to their smaller size, their modular design means they can be assembled in a factory and transported for installation making them quick to set up.

Once installed, they offer a flexible approach to energy consumption. SMRs can be installed into an existing grid or remain off grid, and local authorities can tailor solutions to meet specific needs. For example, a city could start by installing one SMR to provide electricity but quickly and easily add a second if its energy needs increased.

Photo of Engineer working one elcetrcial cables

Their small scale also makes SMRs easier to finance, according to the UN. Coupled with the high reliability of nuclear energy compared with renewable sources such as wind and solar, this means they are a viable and realistic option for low-emission energy.

Romania: replacing existing energy infrastructure

In Romania, SMRs are expected to be in use by 2028, and to provide a way to phase down coal-fired energy production by 2032.

CEO of national nuclear energy provider Nuclearelectrica, Cosmin Ghita, told the IEF the company has already begun the process of transitioning existing coal sites to SMRs. This starts with a site selection study and a technology assessment study "to evaluate retiring coal capacities that could be replaced by new small modular reactors using the same functions".

Coal sites often have existing steam connections and gas pipelines that can be converted for SMR use, but repurposing coal plants in this way will help local communities. Rather than losing jobs, coal site workers will participate in the transition to nuclear energy and the site will continue to provide local economic benefits throughout the transition to lower emissions.

Photo of Cooling Towers

Ghita said, for the next decade, "we see small modular reactors as being the technology at the core of [nuclear energy] deployment."

Countries around the world agree. In the fight against climate change, fast, effective and reliable solutions are needed. Small Modular Reactors fit the brief – both in size and in ambition.

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