Small nuclear reactors emerge as energy option, but risks lurk | Technology


NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — A global search for alternative sources to Russian energy during the war in Ukraine has again focused attention on smaller, easier-to-build nuclear power plants, which proponents say could provide a cheaper and more efficient compared to the previous model. mega plants.

UK-based Rolls-Royce SMR says its Small Modular Reactors, or SMRs, are much cheaper and faster to bring online than standard plants, providing the kind of energy security many nations seek. . France already relies on nuclear power for most of its electricity, and Germany has retained the option of restarting two nuclear plants that it will shut down at the end of the year when Russia cuts off natural gas supplies.

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While Rolls-Royce SMR and its competitors have signed deals with countries from Britain to Poland to start building the stations, they are many years away from operating and unable to solve the energy crisis now hitting Europe. Nuclear power also poses risks, including disposing of highly radioactive waste and keeping that technology out of the hands of rogue countries or nefarious groups that may be pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

Those risks have been heightened by the bombing around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, which has heightened fears of a possible nuclear disaster.

However, after the war, “reliance on Russian gas imports and energy sources has focused people’s attention on energy security,” Rolls-Royce SMR spokesman Dan Gould said.

The components of an SMR can be built in a factory, moved to a site by tractor trailer and assembled there, making the technology more attractive to frugal buyers, he said.

“It’s like building Lego,” Gould said. “Building on a smaller scale reduces risks and makes it a more investable project.”

Most SMRs are essentially pressurized water reactors identical to some 400 reactors around the world. The key advantages are its size, about one-tenth the size of a standard reactor, ease of construction, and price.

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The estimated cost of a Rolls-Royce SMR is £2.2bn to £2.8bn ($2.5bn to $3.2bn), with an estimated build time of 5.5 years. That’s two years faster than it took to build a standard nuclear plant between 2016 and 2021, according to statistics from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Some estimates put the cost of building a 1,100-megawatt nuclear plant at between $6 billion and $9 billion.

Rolls-Royce aims to build its first stations in the UK within five and a half years, Gould said.

Similarly, Oregon-based NuScale Power signed deals last year with two Polish companies, copper-silver producer KGHM and power producer UNIMOT, to explore the possibility of building SMRs to power heavy industry. Poland wants to switch from polluting electricity generation to coal.

Rolls-Royce SMR said last month that it had signed an agreement with Dutch development company ULC-Energy to study installing SMR in the Netherlands.

Another partner is Turkey, where Russia is building the Akkuyu nuclear power plant on the southern coast. Environmentalists say the region is seismically active and could be a target for terrorists.

The introduction of “unproven” nuclear power technology in the form of SMR does not sit well with environmentalists, who argue that the proliferation of small reactors will exacerbate the problem of how to dispose of highly radioactive nuclear waste.

“Unfortunately, Turkey is governed by an incompetent administration that has turned it into a ‘test bed’ for corporations,” said Koray Dogan Urbarli, spokesman for Turkey’s Green Party.

“It is giving up the sovereignty of a certain region for at least 100 years so that Russia builds a nuclear power plant. This incompetence and lobbying power make Turkey an easy target for SMRs,” Koray said, adding that his party eschews the technology with an “uncertain future.”

Gould said a Rolls-Royce SMR would generate nuclear waste the size of a “tennis court stacked 1 meter high” over the plant’s 60-year lifespan. He said the waste would initially be stored on-site at UK plants and eventually transferred to a long-term disposal site selected by the UK government.

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MV Ramana, a professor of public policy and global affairs at the University of British Columbia, cites research suggesting that “there is no proven way” to ensure that nuclear waste stored in what authorities consider safe sites does not escape in the future.

The constant heat generated by the waste could alter the rock formations where it is stored and allow water to seep in, while future mining activities could compromise the integrity of a nuclear waste site, said Ramana, who specializes in international security and nuclear energy. .

Skeptics also raise the risks of exporting such technology in politically tumultuous regions. Gould said Rolls-Royce is “fully” compliant with UK and international requirements by exporting its SMR technology “only to territories that are signatories to the international treaties necessary for the peaceful use of nuclear energy for power generation”.

However, Ramana said there is no guarantee nations will follow the rules.

“Any country that acquires nuclear reactors automatically improves its ability to make nuclear weapons,” he said, adding that each SMR could produce “about 10 plutonium bombs every year.”

Rolls-Royce SMR could choose to stop supplying fuel and other services to anyone who breaks the rules, but “if any country decides to do so, they can simply tell the International Atomic Energy Agency to stop inspections, as Iran has done, for example, said Ramana.

Although spent fuel typically undergoes chemical reprocessing to generate the type of plutonium used in nuclear weapons, Ramana said that reprocessing technology is widely known and that a very sophisticated reprocessing plant is not required to produce the amount of plutonium needed for weapons.

Associated Press writers Andrew Wilks in Ankara, Turkey, and Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island, contributed.

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