The Financial Express

Small Modular Reactor offers new hope for commercial nuclear energy

| Updated: December 31, 2020 21:00:31

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Small Modular Reactor offers new hope for commercial nuclear energy

Local think tank Centre for Policy Dialogue's (CPD) seminar held in Dhaka on December 24, 2020 advocated for projecting logical electric energy demand and supply targets in the Eighth Five Year Plan of the country, increase share of environment friendly commercial energy use and enhance efficiency in energy sector. The seminar participants mentioned that the capacity for generating electric energy and number of consumers in the country had increased significantly during last ten years. CPD keynote paper highlighted among others the need for reduction of carbon rich coal and liquid fuel use for power generation and enhancing renewable energy use. However, Chairman SREDA (Sustainable and Renewable Energy Authority) and additional Secretary of the Bangladesh government Mr. Alauddin informed the seminar that the renewable energy sources could not be enough to supply commercial scale electricity in the country as there were genuine impediments for their development. He informed that the government initiatives would continue to increase and diversify renewable sources of energy use in future.

The expectations for increased use of renewable energy, especially, carbon emission free electricity generation and use have been growing worldwide. A number of countries in the world blessed with renewable sources of energy (e.g., hydro, wind, solar and geothermal energy) have been increasingly using their energy sources for national development. Unfortunately, geological location of Bangladesh limits it to rely on the above domestic sources. Solar energy  use in the country has been increasing in the country (already off grid connections of nearly six million Solar Home Systems supported with battery supply cumulatively 330 MW electric power for lighting their houses, shops and household businesses). Grid connected solar power of nearly 87 MW capacity equivalent has been installed  in the country. Using rooftop spaces of the factories, industries, firms and other buildings may add additional 200 MW within next couple of years. However, the total potentials for commercially sustainable renewable energy are way behind the requirements for commercial electric energy in the country during the Eighth Five Year Plan. The available technology for generating electric power using solar radiation demands 3-4 acres of free land which restricts its development in the land hungry Bangladesh.

On the other hand, carbon neutral development path is very important for the future of the world. The policy makers have been trying to connect neighbouring country's electricity grids to import electricity from their surplus sources. However, the impediments are not always simple to that end.

Bangladesh Power System Master Plan (2016) keeps provision for 10 per cent nuclear power share in commercial energy mix. At present the under construction 2400 MW Ruppoor Nuclear Power plant is likely to add 10 per cent of the power requirements for the country in 2024. However, further expansion of nuclear power capacity will not be possible during the Eighth Five Year Plan period. The government's plan for installation of a new Nuclear Power Plant in the southern part of the country remains at the conceptual stage. And the experience of Ruppoor NPP shows that installation of a large size nuclear power plant takes nearly a decade from the contract awarding to Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) contractor engagement for its construction and commissioning. The initial cost for installation of the conventional nuclear power plant is several times high compared to the fossil fuel based power plants.

The development of Small Modular Reactor (SMR) for nuclear power generation technology encourages many in the country. The available nuclear power technology generally offers utility scale reactors capable to generate 1000-1500 megawatts or more from the power plant (in Rooppur two 1200 MW nuclear reactors are being installed to generate 2400 MW). On the contrary, SMR usually have capacities to generate 300 MW or less power per module. Additionally, the SMR is usually designed and manufactured at the factories and the pre-fabricated modules can be transported by truck or rail and set up quickly at the installation sites at lesser costs compared to the traditional nuclear reactors. Recently the government of the United Kingdom announced that it would invest up to 332 million dollars (250 million pounds) for installation of small modular reactors. The UK government further decided that it would 'unlock up to 300 million private sector match funding' alongside the 'other  226 million dollars (170 million pounds) fund for developing the new Advanced Modular Reactors.' The Guardian reports that the SMR would be ready for installation in the UK in around 2030.

In a separate development, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has issued in August 2020 design approval for SMR to NuScale Power company based in Portland, Oregon. The company NuScale Power has signed Memorandum of Understanding with entities from Canada, the Czech Republic, Jordan, Romania and Ukraine to 'explore the potential deployment of NuScale SMP power plants.

Russian Federation has deployed in December 2019 in the Far East a floating SMR plant. China plans to install in the near future two small-scale SMR projects. Several other countries and multinational companies have been in advance stages of research and design for developing SMR projects in different countries both for generating electric energy (both grid connected and isolated) and for producing heat.

Interests for diverse technology based SMR have been growing worldwide as an alternative to fossil fuel based power generating technology. Also SMR attracts the policy planners as the units are small and easy to install for generating power and heat from nuclear energy. The World Nuclear Association considers that the SMR offers significantly less capital cost investment and involves less active safety systems (by using active cooling pumps, lower requirements for cooling water, cooling towers, large safety buffer area etc.). As the SMR modules are factory made, their quality control can be optimised easily. SMR modules can be added one after another as required and can be decommissioned in-situ at the end of its lifetime. The smaller size of the SMR can be connected to smaller power grids. Reliance of the SMR on passive safety features allows the less experienced countries (with commercial nuclear power technology) to install them at a reduced cost and if required at remote locations. 

The advocates for nuclear power believe that the SMR can deal with all the major existing problems (e.g., unfavourable economics, risk of accidents, disposing of radioactive wastes and linkage with nuclear weapon proliferation) that have been restricting currently the rapid development of nuclear energy worldwide.

Mushfiqur Rahman is a mining engineer who writes on energy and environment issues.

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