The nuclear power industry is looking to shrink its reactors down into smaller modular reactors, known as SMRs, roughly 1% the size of traditional nuclear reactors as we know them today.
The logic behind this is to create small, factory-built units that can operate underground, making them significantly safer than traditional reactors at a fraction of the cost.
The technology behind them isn’t new, it’s just more efficient and cost-effective.
While traditional large reactors operate at full capacity all year, SMRs are designed to operate only when needed, bridging the gap between fossil fuels and fully green renewable energy. The design has been streamlined, removing several moving parts and decreasing the likelihood of a mechanical issue or breakdown.
Just last year, the UK government pledged to invest £54 million into the technology. There is a huge demand for these reactors already, and the market is expected to be worth $100 billion by 2035. They can produce anywhere from 50 to 300 megawatts of energy – enough to power entire cities.
SMRs will be cost-effective thanks to the ability to mass-produce them at existing factories. However, it is unlikely that we’ll see high-performing SMRs until the next decade or later. They are already in development in the USA, Russia, China, Argentina, and South Korea.
Producers of SMRs argue that because the improved design makes them safer, the emergency 10-mile planning zone typically required by large reactors shouldn’t be required. The smaller amount of nuclear fuel involved means there is far less chance of a serious meltdown.
Critics of argue that SMRs would still pose a significant risk. Most SMRs are held in high-pressure steel containment, and immersed in millions of gallons of water, removing the need for a containment building.
However, the more reactors there are in the world, the more opportunities there will be for sabotage. Most designs could be transported on the back of a lorry, making it possible for people to hijack them and convert them into crude but effective weapons. Every SMR could be a potential bomb.
Also, there is of course the issue of nuclear waste. While nuclear energy is technically ‘clean’ as it doesn’t generate carbon emissions, it does generate incredibly dangerous toxic waste. And currently solar and wind energy are safer, more reliable, and cheaper.
The UK government is looking to close its coal plants by 2025, and will likely move to adopt any technology that can help them lower their overall carbon emissions to meet 2050 targets. However nuclear energy is already being undercut by renewables, and so will need to rely on government subsidies to remain competitive.
The price of fossil fuels will only increase as time goes on, so there may be a market for SMRs in many niche areas.
In any event, it’s likely that SMRs will play a role in the world cutting down on carbon emissions from the energy sector over the next few decades.