With apologies to Texas, bigger isn’t always better. When it comes to nuclear power, shrinking reactors down to a size where they could fit on the back of a truck could help solve a number of the energy source’s biggest (no pun intended) problems. The FT reports on these small modular reactors, or SMRs:
SMRs are designed as shrunken versions of larger plants; they can be made in factories and moved by train, truck or barge to the site. Developers say that if enough are built in the same factory, costs per unit of energy output can be driven down well below those of larger plants.
Small reactors are already used on nuclear submarines and in some developing countries such as India and Pakistan. But only recently have the industry and politicians begun to take seriously the idea that they could be made economically on a large scale.
Anurag Gupta, nuclear director at KPMG UK, says: “SMRs promise all the benefits of nuclear — low cost and green power — but without the significant cost and schedule overrun issues that have beset conventional large nuclear projects.”
One of the biggest obstacles for new nuclear power plant projects is the sheer scope of them: any given project requires huge sums of money, years if not decades of planning, large acreage on which to site the plant, extensive and expensive cooling apparatuses—the list goes on.
Scaling these projects down won’t eliminate these problems—reactors won’t magically become cheap (though economies of scale could bring costs down), NIMBY-ism will continue to obstruct projects (and may even make siting more difficult as more SMRs come online), and due diligence will still be required to minimize risks posed by mishaps and malfeasance alike. But at a smaller scale, these issues are more manageable. And that’s not just good news for countries looking for a consistent source of baseload power to bolster their national energy mix, it’s also good news for the planet.
That’s because nuclear power plants are our green energy workhorse. They provide power round-the-clock without emitting greenhouse gases or harmful local pollutants—a pair of benefits no fossil fuel-fired power plant, solar array, or wind farm can provide. SMRs are just one of many exciting new nuclear technologies coming down the pipe, and while it’s too early to anoint any one specific one as a game-changer, this new generation ought to be putting a smile on the face of anyone who purports to care about climate change or the environment. Nuclear power needs to be the cornerstone of a sustainable, clean energy mix, and SMRs could help that happen.