Major Investment in Small Modular Reactor Technology

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nuclear plant

Interest in nuclear power has been growing in recent years, following several decades of stagnation. Governments worldwide are once again investing heavily in the development of conventional nuclear power plants to help increase their clean energy capacity in support of a green transition. This is being reinforced through greater investment in nuclear fusion technology, as scientists hope to provide abundant clean energy through fusion within the coming decades. Another sector also catching the eyes of investors is small modular reactor (SMR) technology, which offers an alternative form of smaller-scale nuclear power production. An increasing number of private companies are developing SMRs to provide clean, nuclear power at an accelerated pace. 

What is SMR Technology?

SMRs are advanced nuclear reactors that have a power capacity of up to 300 MW(e) per unit, which is equivalent to around one-third the generating capacity of a conventional nuclear reactor. SMRs are much smaller than traditional reactors. They are modular in form, making it easier for them to be assembled in factories and transported to the site. Thanks to their smaller size, SMRs can be installed on sites that are not suitable for bigger reactors. They are also much cheaper and faster to build than conventional reactors and can be constructed incrementally to meet the growing energy demand of a site. 

The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) views advanced SMRs as key to developing safe, clean, and affordable nuclear power across the country. Companies in the U.S. are developing a wide range of SMRs that vary in size and capability, from tens of megawatts up to hundreds of megawatts. They can be used across a variety of industries from power generation to heat production, desalination, or other industrial uses. SMR technology is growing in popularity as SMRs are much cheaper and faster to build than conventional nuclear reactors and take up much less space, meaning that private companies can build SMRs to provide clean power to a wide range of sites. 

In recent years, the DoE has funded light water-cooled SMR technology, which is under licensing review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for rollout in the late 2020s to early 2030s. The DoE is also funding research into SMRs using non-traditional coolants to help diversify the clean energy mix. 

At present, China is leading the world when it comes to nuclear technology and Russia is dominating the uranium production space. This has encouraged the U.S. to invest heavily in conventional nuclear power projects, SMRs, and HALEU (uranium enriched to between 5% and 20%) production. Josh Freed, the leader of the Climate and Energy Program at the think tank Third Way, explained, “There’s definitely a huge race on… China and Russia have more agreements to build all sorts of reactors overseas than the US does. That’s what the US needs to catch up on.” 

Bipartisan Nuclear Funding

This month, the DoE announced $900 million in funding to accelerate the deployment of next-generation light-water SMRs. The funds come from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and will help support the deployment of Generation III+ (Gen III+) SMR technologies. It is expected to help strengthen the U.S. nuclear energy industry and encourage greater private investment in the sector, as well as support job creation. 

The U.S. Secretary of Energy, Jennifer Granholm stated, “President Biden is determined to ensure nuclear power—the nation’s single largest source of carbon-free electricity—continues to serve as a key pillar of our nation’s transition to a safe and secure clean energy future.” Granholm added, “Today’s announcement will support early movers in the nuclear sector as we seek to scale up nuclear power and reassert American leadership in this critical energy industry.”

The DoE estimates that the U.S. will require around  700-900 GW of additional clean power to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, which includes conventional and non-conventional nuclear energy. 

The DoE plans to offer funding in two tiers:   

  • Tier 1: First Mover Team Support, managed by the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED), plans to provide up to $800M to support up to two first-mover teams of utility, reactor vendor, constructor, and end-users or power off-takers committed to deploying a first plant while at the same time facilitating a multi-reactor, Gen III+ SMR order book.  
  • Tier 2: Fast Follower Deployment Support, managed by the Office of Nuclear Energy (NE), plans to provide up to $100M to spur additional Gen III+ SMR deployments by addressing key gaps that have hindered the domestic nuclear industry in areas such as design, licensing, supplier development, and site preparation.  

Previously, nuclear energy projects required huge levels of funding, decades of development and expertise in conventional reactor technology to establish. In addition, gaining licensing for a conventional nuclear power project is extremely difficult because of the risks involved. However, SMR technology is making it increasingly possible for a range of companies to develop clean energy on a smaller and more affordable scale, which will allow several industries to use low-carbon energy to power operations. Millions of dollars of public investment in the sector will help spur greater private investment in SMR technology and allow the U.S. to become more competitive in nuclear power on a global scale.

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Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specializing in Energy and Industry. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK, and is now based in Mexico City.

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