We have to wonder why small modular reactors and the re …

Small modular nuclear reactors are widely viewed as the energy source of the future. But if we just look at the cost, solar and wind are much cheaper than small modular reactors, and battery technology is much better today than it was three years ago.

Roland Ngam

Dr. Roland Ngam is program manager for climate justice and socio-ecological transformation at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Southern Africa. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) seem to be on everyone’s lips these days. Release them at your own risk. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but everyone is talking about it, while energy prices are skyrocketing in Europe, Britain struggles to supply its gas stations, the Greens Nord Stream 2 want to cancel, and China rationing electricity after the recent proliferation of outages in 22 states .

Could it be that some of these crises – and ergo, Energy panic – Are they man-made to put fossils in the spotlight one last time? Nuclear energy is renewable, but I mean it takes fossils and a lot of capital to make it! Are those who rely on SMRs as the technology of the future rightly placing their hopes on this sector and not on more environmentally friendly alternatives?

I’ll come back to that later. First, what exactly are SMRs?

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SMRs are small nuclear reactors with a capacity of 300 MW or less (almost enough power to make Mangaung glow) – really tiny compared to the classic reactors like the 7,965 MW Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Japan, which are four times the size Koeberg is and can shine almost the entire city of Johannesburg. The capacities below 15 MW are called VSMRs.

Unlike larger power reactors, which take 10-15 years to build and cost at least $ 10 billion, SMRs can be installed in less than four years at a cost of between $ 3 billion and $ 5 billion, with an average lifespan of 60 years. Utilities can start with one SMR and add up to 12 modules over time in some cases. Another benefit of SMRs is that they cannot melt together – They are designed to simply shut down and cool down. This takes away the fear of nuclear accidents that release radiant material into the atmosphere.

Although some skeptics say we are about a decade away from commercial SMRs, Russia already has a 35 MW floating SMR power ship and plans to build a second in Siberia soon.

America has been subsidizing SMR research for more than a decade. They paid $ 226 million in research grants for the light-water SMR built by Nuscale Power for Energy Northwest. US Congress has already passed a Nuclear Production Tax Credit (PTC) bill to subsidize energy from the facility for the next 10 years, and the Department of Energy has passed further approval $ 1.355 billion Fund the Carbon Free Power Project (CFPP), which is investing heavily in SMRs.

China already has a number of SMR floating power vessels and has started construction 125 MWe land-based pressurized water reactor (PWR) in Hainan Province in June 2021. The project was officially launched by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment.

In the UK, SMRs are a central component of the decarbonization strategy. Last year Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a £ 525 million investment in SMR development, and Economy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng is about to approve one Contract for Rolls-Royce building a fleet of them to ensure energy self-sufficiency, which has become a hotly debated issue after Brexit and now amid the fuel shortages that have ravaged the country.

French President Emmanuel Macron does not want to be trumped for SMRs to become a cornerstone of his 2022 re-election campaign. It is believed that France will spend € 50 million from the Euro Recovery Plan on SMR research. Industry players in the nuclear field have already announced plans to build a university for nuclear research. Around 30 research centers also have funding from the France relaunch Nuclear Research Plans. Although France is the world leader in nuclear technology, they have been caught by Russia, the US and China, which are already way ahead of them in SMR technology.

So the race is in full swing to ramp up the production of affordable commercial land-based SMRs that could potentially fill manufacturing companies’ order books.

Now back to why nuclear technology is making a comeback – well, it never went away, but it is having some sort of renaissance among the increasingly confident G20 leaders – because, as Maud Bregeon puts it Nuclear: an industrial and ecological heritage, even the IPCC and the UN say that “all low carbon technologies are needed to meet our climate goals, including nuclear energy. In the past 50 years, nuclear power has saved the planet from emitting 75 million tons of CO2 and prevented over a million deaths from air pollution. “

The USA also sees investments in SMRs as a potential help deep decarbonization. For example, NuScale boasts on its website that “SMRs – at NuScale cost – would cut the cost of 100 percent greenhouse gas reduction in the power sector by nearly $ 8 billion a year.”

Some green parties in Europe have considered nuclear power necessary evil in the face of the Russian threat.

Is the world right now to focus on SMRs as the future? If we just look at the cost, solar and wind power are much cheaper than SMRs, and battery technology is much better today than it was three years ago. According to the International Energy Agency and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, the kilowatt-hour price for SMR will almost certainly always be higher than what larger power plants can offer. For this reason, many ask why the South African Energy Minister remains determined to commit to new nuclear capacities in line with the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). This allocation could be shifted to a cheaper energy source.

$ 3 billion is a massive drop from the $ 10 billion common for a large nuclear power plant. But even with a $ 3 billion run-up to a small facility, the average African country simply cannot afford this type of technology. In comparison, they can get a modular solar system going for a few thousand dollars.

Then there is the toll that ongoing investments in nuclear power are taking on the environment. In an essay entitled An obituary for small modular reactors, Friends of the Earth Australia argues that “about half of the SMRs under construction (Russia’s floating power plant, Russia’s RITM-200 icebreaker ships and China’s ACPR50S demonstration reactor) are designed to provide access to fossil fuel resources in the Arctic, in the south, to facilitate China Sea and elsewhere ”.

Drought-stricken Namibia, which has around 5% of the world’s uranium resources, saw investment in the uranium sector increase. Russia (Rosatom) and China (China National Uranium Corporation, CNNC Overseas Uranium Holding Limited, etc.) have significantly increased their investments in the country, a sign that much of what is being said at COP26 will just be hot air.

In Namibia, too, helpless activists are trying to draw the world’s attention to the unusually high number of former uranium miners who have died of cancer, without much success. As uranium investment picks up and some environmental activists advocate nuclear energy as a green technology, it is important to remember the toll it is taking on people and ecosystems in the global south.

These considerations should lead us to make more sensible and realistic decisions for our children and the children of our children. DM

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