The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is launching an effort to expand international cooperation and coordination in the design, development and deployment of small, medium sized or modular reactors (SMRs), among the most promising emerging technologies in nuclear power.
Significant advances have been made on SMRs, some of which will use pre-fabricated systems and components to shorten construction schedules and offer greater flexibility and affordability than traditional nuclear power plants. With some 50 SMR concepts at various stages of development around the world, the IAEA is forming a Technical Working Group (TWG) to guide its activities on SMRs and provide a forum for Member States to share information and knowledge.
"Innovation is crucial for nuclear power to play a key role in decarbonising the energy sector"
In the words of IAEA Deputy Director General Mikhail Chudakov, "Innovation is crucial for nuclear power to play a key role in decarbonising the energy sector. Many Member States that are operating, expanding, introducing or considering nuclear power are quite keen on the development and deployment of SMRs."
SMRs have the potential to meet the needs of a wide range of users and to be low carbon replacements for ageing fossil fuel fired power plants. They also display enhanced safety features and are suitable for non-electric applications, such as cooling, heating and water desalination. In addition, SMRs offer options for remote regions with less developed infrastructure and for energy systems that combine nuclear and alternative sources, including renewables.
The first three advanced SMRs are expected to begin commercial operation in Argentina, China and the Russian Federation between 2018 and 2020. SMR development is also well advanced in about a dozen other countries.
The TWG, comprising some 20 IAEA Member States and international organizations, is scheduled to meet for the first time on 23-26 April at the IAEA's headquarters in Vienna.
It is part of an expanding suite of services the IAEA offers Member States on this emerging nuclear power technology. These include an SMR computer simulation programme to help educate and train nuclear professionals; a methodology and related IT tool for training in assessing the reactor technology of different SMRs; and the SMR Regulators' Forum which enables discussions among Member States and other stakeholders to share SMR regulatory knowledge and experience. It contributes to enhancing safety by identifying and resolving issues that may challenge regulatory reviews of SMRs and by facilitating robust and thorough regulatory decisions.
Responding to requests from Member States in Europe, the IAEA recently launched a project to build regional capacities for making knowledgeable decisions on SMRs, including technical assessments for SMRs that are commercially available for near term deployment. The two-year project seeks to contribute to meeting growing European demand for flexible sources of electricity that do not release greenhouse gases.
An expeditious deployment of SMRs faces challenges, including the need to develop a robust regulatory framework, new codes and standards, a resilient supply chain and human resources. And although SMRs require less upfront capital per unit, their electricity generating cost will probably be higher than that of large reactors. Their competitiveness must be weighed against alternatives and be pursued through economies of scale. Detailed technical information on SMRs under construction or design can be found at the IAEA's Advanced Reactor Information System.
"Realistically, we could expect the first commercial SMR fleet to start between 2025 and 2030," said Hadid Subki, Scientific Secretary of the TWG and a Team Leader in SMR Technology Development at the IAEA. "We trust this new Technical Working Group will help further the advancement of SMR technology and guide the Agency in its programmes and projects in this field."