Renaissance of nuclear power: mini-reactors in demand worldwide

Status: 11.03.2021 5:54 p.m.

Ten years after the Fukushima explosion, some countries are pouring billions into small-scale nuclear power plants. Experts in Germany are critical of the concepts and warn of risks.

From Till Bücker,
tagesschau.de

For opponents it is the “floating Chernobyl”, for supporters it is a symbol of a new era of energy supply: the Lomonossow academy. The Russian ship, which is anchored near the city of Pewek on the Arctic Ocean, is a floating nuclear power plant. It will supply the remote region with electricity for the next 40 years.

Nuclear energy on the water: The floating nuclear power plant Akademik Lomonossow.

Image: dpa

What is highly controversial among environmentalists and some scientists represents a kind of renaissance for proponents of nuclear power. With its two mini-reactors, the ship is the first SMR power plant in the world, writes the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). SMR stands for Small Modular Reactors, which, according to the IAEA, could help countries find reliable and affordable energy sources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Modular mini reactors

Unlike large nuclear power plants, the mini-reactors only generate electricity of up to 300 megawatts instead of an output of more than 1000 megawatts. In a kind of modular system, the individual components are pre-produced in series and then assembled on site – usually in the country. This can mean both a shorter construction time and lower costs.

According to experts, a system with 300 megawatts costs an estimated one billion euros. By way of comparison: it was only recently announced that the expenditure for the new 3200 megawatt Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant in Great Britain, which is due to go online in the summer of 2026, has risen to 27 billion euros.

Proponents consider the SMR systems to be a useful addition to renewable energies. If wind, solar and water power don’t produce enough electricity, these supposedly safe mini-reactors could step in. “The unique properties of SMRs in terms of efficiency, flexibility and economy can enable them to play a key role in the clean energy transition,” said Stefano Monti, head of the IAEA’s division for the development of nuclear power technologies, recently.

US President wants low-emission interim solution

According to Monto, interest in SMR technology is growing worldwide. According to the IAEA, there are currently 84 reactors in development or under construction in 18 countries. The process is particularly advanced in Russia, China, Japan and Argentina.

With the United States, Canada and Great Britain, however, western countries are also at the top. With the help of government support, a British consortium around the industrial group Rolls-Royce is working on the technology and wants to build 16 such systems on the island in the future.

A total of 18 – and thus most of the projects – in connection with the small reactors are ongoing in the USA. In his ambitious climate program, the new President Joe Biden relies not only on renewable energy generation but also on small nuclear power plants – as a low-emission interim solution.

It’s not for nothing that two of the largest startups in the industry come from the United States. NuScale is developing a technique in which several small reactors are installed in a cooling pool of water. According to the company, this should be enough to prevent a disaster even if the security systems fail. In order to make a test operation possible, the US Department of Energy subsidized the project in October with 1.4 billion dollars.

The nuclear company TerraPower, which was founded by multibillionaire Bill Gates in 2006 and wants to use nuclear waste as fuel, also receives money from the state. “We believe that we have developed a model in which all important problems have been solved,” the entrepreneur recently wrote in his new book.

Risks too high?

Experts in Germany see it differently. On Wednesday, the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management (BASE) published a current report on Small Modular Reactors. The commissioned Freiburg Eco-Institute examined a total of 31 SMR concepts. The bottom line: They are not fully developed and involve enormous risks.

Due to the low electrical output, “the construction of several thousand to ten thousand SMR systems” is necessary in order to generate electricity from the approximately 400 large reactors currently in existence. A single plant contained little nuclear material that could be released in the event of an accident. By multiplying, however, the risk increases again. In addition, reduced safety requirements can be observed in many systems. The problem of final storage and new challenges in accessing nuclear weapons-grade material have not been resolved either.

In addition, according to the analysis, economic viability is also questionable, as the construction costs per megawatt of output are higher than with renewable energies and cost reductions are not to be expected. In the opinion of the experts, entry would only be worthwhile from three thousand systems.

German environmental aid warns

“With some concepts there could be advantages with regard to individual problem areas, but there is no sign of a system that convincingly solves all existing problems in nuclear technology in one fell swoop,” says Christoph Pistner, division manager for nuclear technology and plant safety at the Öko-Institut tagesschau.de. “I don’t see that the SMR systems are a realistic option for energy supply.”

The German Environmental Aid (DUH) argues similarly. The association criticizes that the mini-reactions are not able to cope with the difficulties of atomic technology. Every new reactor requires large quantities of cooling water, which means that the world’s dwindling water supplies are becoming scarcer even faster.

“A large number of small, decentralized nuclear facilities would be created that would be even more difficult to monitor and protect against terrorist attacks than before,” said the DUH. And the amount of radioactive nuclear waste could also continue to grow dramatically as a result.

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