Small nuclear reactors emerge as energy option, but risks loom

Nicosia, Cyprus — A worldwide search for alternative sources to Russian power during the war in Ukraine has refocused attention on smaller, easier-to-build nuclear power plants, which proponents say could provide a cheaper and more efficient alternative to mega – older model control units.

UK-based Rolls-Royce SMR says its Small Modular Reactors, or SMRs, are much cheaper and faster to start than standard power plants, providing the kind of energy security that many countries seek. France already depends on nuclear energy for the majority of its electricity, and Germany has kept the option of reactivating two nuclear power plants which it will close at the end of the year as Russia cuts its natural gas supplies. .

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 cannot solve the energy crisis that is hitting currently Europe. Nuclear energy also presents risks, including disposal of highly radioactive waste and keeping this technology out of the hands of rogue countries or nefarious groups that may pursue a nuclear weapons program.

These risks were heightened following the bombing of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, which raised fears of a potential nuclear disaster.

In the aftermath of the war, however, “reliance on imported gas and Russian energy sources focused people’s attention on energy security,” Rolls-Royce SMR spokesman Dan Gould said.

Components of an SMR can be built in a factory, moved to a site in tractor-trailers and assembled there, making the technology more attractive to budget buyers, he said.

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

SMRs are essentially pressurized water reactors identical to some 400 reactors around the world. The main advantages are their size – about a tenth the size of a standard reactor – the ease of construction and the price.

The estimated cost of a Rolls-Royce SMR is 2.2–2.8 billion pounds ($2.5–3.2 billion), with an estimated construction time of 5½ years. That’s two years faster than it took to build a standard nuclear power plant between 2016 and 2021, according to statistics from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Some estimates place the cost of building a 1,100 megawatt nuclear power plant at between $6 billion and $9 billion.

Rolls-Royce aims to build its first stations in the UK within 5.5 years, Gould said.

Similarly, Oklahoma-based NuScale Power signed agreements last year with two Polish companies – copper and silver producer KGHM and power producer UNIMOT – to explore the possibility of building SMRs to power heavy industry. Poland wants to abandon polluting coal-fired electricity production.

Rolls-Royce SMR announced last month that it had signed an agreement with Dutch development company ULC-Energy to consider setting up SMR in the Netherlands.

Another partner is Turkey, where Russia is building the Akkuyu nuclear power plant on the southern coast. Environmentalists say the area 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 disposing of highly radioactive nuclear waste.

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

“It’s giving up sovereignty of a certain region for at least 100 years for Russia to build a nuclear power plant. This incompetence and lobbying power makes Turkey an easy target for SMRs,” Koray said, adding that his party is avoiding 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” throughout the plant’s 60-year lifespan. He said initially the waste would be stored on site at UK factories and eventually moved to a long-term disposal site selected by the UK government.

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

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

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

Ramana said, however, there was no guarantee nations would 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 providing fuel and other services to anyone breaking the rules, but “if a country chooses to do so, they can simply tell the International Atomic Energy Agency to stop inspections, like Iran did, for example,” Ramana said.

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

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