Many experts see in SMRs the future of the nuclear industry as it’s offering promising propitious. SMRs can generate up to 300 MW per unit and its main component can be factory-built and transported to sites for ease of construction either by ship, train, or truck. It’s typically lower in cost and has a shorter construction time as a result of its smaller size and factory fabrication; and due to its modularity, additional units can be added to meet demand as it increases. One reactor could power a remote region; while, twelve modular reactors, stacked up like beer cans in six-packs, could serve a city.
SMRs biggest advantages for African countries are its ability to be placed wherever it may be required and to supply the electricity in areas without robust or sizeable grid infrastructure or capacity. IAEA recommends the grid power capacity of the current network to be 10 times higher than the future nuclear power plant. For instance, a country should have a capacity of 10,000 MW to generate 1,000 MW from nuclear energy. However, few countries in Africa can meet that requirement. SMRs and Micro-reactors would be the solution to the grid size problem, also SMRs fit the needs of African countries in regards to many aspects. Obviously, the lower cost compared to larger reactors will allow those emerging countries to get the financing relatively easier. Also, SMRs are less complex and simpler to operate, which is an important point for newcomers (African countries) considering that they lack a nuclear-experienced workforce.
Jacopo Buongiorno, MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory director of science and technology stated “It’s one thing to embark on a project that can cost a billion dollars; another that costs $10 billion… A $10 billion project you’re betting the farm, a billion dollars — even if it goes catastrophically wrong — you don’t break the bank.”
Many representatives from sub-Saharan African countries have expressed great interest in the potential use of SMRs but also hesitation at deploying an untested design. Thus, it would be unlikely that an African country would be the first to deploy such a design. As Richard Ndubai (Kenya’s former National Youth Service director) stated, “If SMRs are an opportunity for us, we would like them to be built and tested elsewhere before introducing them into our country.”
Many countries such as Russia, China, and the US are on the verge of finalizing SMRs projects. For instance, Rosatom’s floating power plant is on its way to Siberia where it’s expected to start full operation by December, equipped with two KLT40 nuclear reactors delivering a capacity of 70 megawatts/hour, the vessel is 140m long and 30m tall. The technology takes only 4 years to build while a conventional NPP would require at least 10 years. According to the Sudan Tribune, Sudan has a deal with Russia to become the first (besides Russia) to have a floating nuclear power plant.
NuScale Power has the most developed SMR design in the US. The company has submitted its design to licensing and expect to start construction in 2020 for Utah Associated Municipal Power System. It has designed a nuclear power module, a 75-foot steel cylinder that can produce 60 megawatts of electricity, and power plants that put one or more of those modules together, sunk mostly below ground level in pools of water. NuScale Power and Rosatom will be showcasing their technologies to African leaders at Africa Nuclear Business Platform which is an industry gathering focusing on promoting nuclear new build in Africa.
Also, several companies are working on extremely small modular reactors, 10 MW or less, which can operate for up to ten years without refueling. One design, Oklo, employs heat tubes to move the heat being generated to produce electricity, without the need for pumps and other moving parts, which could also help reduce capital costs, maintenance costs, and staffing. Each unit of this reactor model will produce 2 MW of electricity and is designed to be small enough to fit into two shipping containers. Owners and operators of these nuclear batteries are not meant to handle any of the fueling or maintenance aspects of operating the reactor, and they can just connect the unit to whatever system they want to provide power until the fuel is spent. Therefore, these reactors could require minimal expertise to operate, a characteristic that would be advantageous for African countries with a low supply of skilled labor. Each unit is expected to be walk-away-safe and has a lifespan of 12 years, after which the fuel can be recycled at the central manufacturing facility to be used for another 12 years in another unit of the reactor.
SMRs and Micro-reactors would be in theory the perfect match as discussed above. This reliable source of energy would light up entire regions, dymatize the nascent local industries, enhance agriculture and desalinate water in a region suffering from water stress.
Disclaimer: This post is a collection and mash-up of recent articles about SMRs
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Author: Ibrahim Ababou (Global Account Manager), Nuclear Business Platform