G20 highlight need for civilian nuclear energy, small modular reactors

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G20 leaders at their New Delhi summit meeting earlier this month reiterated their commitment to the use of civil nuclear energy as one of the ways to achieve the global climate goals and facilitating universal energy access for all.  

The New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration issued at the G20 summit spoke of “accelerating clean, sustainable, just, affordable and inclusive energy transitions following various pathways, as a means of enabling strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth and achieve our climate objectives.” 

“For countries that opt to use civil nuclear energy, will collaborate on voluntary and mutually agreed terms, in research, innovation, development & deployment of civil nuclear technologies including advanced and Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), in accordance with national legislations,” the Declaration said.  

“These countries will promote responsible nuclear decommissioning, radioactive waste and spent fuel management and mobilizing investments, and share knowledge and best practices, through strengthening international cooperation to promote nuclear safety globally,” it added.  

SMRs, currently still at an incipient stage of development, are advanced nuclear reactors that have a power capacity of up to 300 MW. They are a fraction of the size of conventional reactors, as well as modular, making it possible for systems and components to be factory-manufactured and transported as a unit to a location for installation.  

SMRs offer many advantages, such as relatively small physical footprints, reduced capital investment, ability to be sited in locations not possible for larger nuclear plants, and provisions for incremental power additions.    

Almost all Asian countries that have embarked on civilian nuclear energy programmes have been guided by the major concern of providing energy security for their populations, reduce dependence on fossil fuels in the context of climate change, as well as the cost of nuclear technology, which has become an important factor as prices have risen sharply in the last decades.   

What adds to the cost of conventional nuclear power plants (NPPs) in the 700-1000 MW category are long construction periods and related delays, parting from the initial requirement of large land areas for setting up such NPPs.  

In such a context, SMRs provide an attractive proposition for the future, foremost from the cost aspect, while addressing other related concerns of safety, the issue of nuclear waste and that of the large land requirement for NPPs.  

Moreover, SMRs can also help address the electricity requirements of far-flung communities that are dispersed over the hinterlands of rural Asia. SMR construction can be carried out by small utilities and are much easier to operate and maintain in remote areas.  

According to extant research, SMRs provide increased safety by providing, among others, more efficient passive heat removal from the reactor vessel and greater quality control. Lower thermal power of the SMR reactor core, compact architecture, and employment of passive concepts have the potential for enhanced safety and security compared to earlier designs and large commercial reactors.

The passive safety systems are a very important safety feature in the SMR. As a result, there is less reliance on active safety systems,

additional pumps and AC power in case of an accident.  

These also have much lower land requirements, lesser delays in construction and involve significantly smaller displacement and rehabilitation of population displaced through land acquisition that would otherwise be necessary for conventional NPPs.  

The most compelling argument for the suitability of SMRs for Asian nations is from the financial point of view of lower capital requirement and the attendant potential of permitting tighter control over the three key related aspects of operation, maintenance and safety.  

The SMRs’ modular nature allows for scaling up capacity by adding units according to demand. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), SMRs are also better suited to operate flexibly in tandem with variable renewable energy sources such as wind and solar in a hybrid energy system, as well as for non-electric applications such as seawater desalination, district heating and hydrogen production.   

“This is the decade of SMR demonstrations, which could potentially determine front runners for the expected economy of series production. There is high level of innovation”, says IAEA’s head of planning and economic studies Henri Paillere.  

Currently, more than 70 commercial SMR designs are being developed around the world.