The case for small modular nuclear reactors in Asia


The ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic raging across the globe has starkly highlighted the urgency for sustainable develoment by cutting emissions to reduce global warming that is destroying natural habitat, bringing animals in closer contact with people and facilitating, thereby, the frequent outbreak of zoonotic diseases, which has culminated in the deadly COVID-19.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Inger Andersen told the Guardian newspaper last month that 75% of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife and that the continued erosion of wild spaces has brought people uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbour diseases that can jump to humans.

This linkage of climate change with various diseases like Ebola, Zika, Sars, bird flu and now the coronavirus, naturally brings to the fore the question of clean and renewable energy, and among these, the role of nuclear power, which can cater to a geographical area much wider than is possible for renewable energy plants. As regards civilian nuclear power, a major constraint in its wider diffusion has been the cost of such technology for setting up reactors, and the focus, therefore, needs to turn to small and modular reactors (SMRs) from the perspective of both key aspects of cost-efficiency, as well as safety.

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, 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.

For small and modular reactors to become successful in the Asian situation, these must satisfy the major requirement of safety, as well as cost-efficiency in both construction and operation, as compared to NPPs. SMR construction can be carried out by small utilities and are much easier to operate and maintain in remote areas.

According to extant research in this field, SMRs provide increased safety by providing among others, more efficient passive heat removal from the reactor vessel and greater quality control. These also have much lower land requirements, lesser delays in construction and involves 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 attendent potential of permitting tighter control over the three key related aspects of operation, maintenance and safety.

Taking the specific case of India, which boasts of one of the bigger civilian nuclear energy programmes in Asia, and which has significant reserves of thorium, the small thorium cycle-based high temperature gas cooled reactors (STGRs) of 20-40 MW sizes allow the possibility of major cost and time saving by eliminating the chances of nuclear accidents, which has been highlighted in the past by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).