Thinking Well of Nuclear
Australian nuclear energy might need to be small to be big.
Australians who consider nuclear energy on its merits — not the least of which is its low lifecycle carbon footprint and zero operational emissions — increasingly see a choice between large, conventional reactors, and the upcoming Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). And when we think about SMRs, the name that stands out in front is NuScale.
The NuScale SMR was specifically pointed to in the Finkel Review:
SMRs are a more flexible technology, with faster construction and delivery times. SMRs have a smaller generating capacity (up to 300 MW), and are designed to allow for modular construction. SMRs are also expected to have a strong safety case based on their smaller size and factory construction. The reactors are capable of providing dispatchable and synchronous electricity, benefiting system security. Projects underway internationally include in the United States, where the design of modules with the capacity to provide 50 MW of electricity each are undergoing licence review.
The SMR space is rapidly evolving. Since the Review, NuScale has uprated its design nameplate capacity from 50 megawatts (electric) to 60. The first customer in the US, UAMPS, has been joined by the Department of Energy and Idaho National Labs who want to use capacity at the First-of-a-Kind plant for research and power supply. Originally targeting an activation date of 2026, NuScale is progressing through US licensing and now expects to be up and running in 2024.
So, what is NuScale? It’s basically a power station with up to 12 small, self-contained light water nuclear reactors chilling in a large common pool of water. But these aren’t your nervous activist uncle’s reactors. Each NuScale module is a steam generator, pressuriser, and fuel cell sealed in a pressure vessel which is sealed in a slightly larger pressure vessel, except the fuel cell is so much smaller than what’s in a conventional reactor that the circulation of coolant water — naturally, without pumps — is all that’s needed to cool it down when it shuts off.
It sounds simple because it is. NuScale’s founder, Jose Reyes, designed safety in as an intrinsic feature from the outset. It’s the reward for going small: a core which can be cooled indefinitely as a simple function of its size in any scenario means the safety case completely changes. This has already been recognised as the potential to shrink the licensed emergency planning zone to the boundary of the plant property (about 35 acres).
But wouldn’t it be expensive? A recent study suggests an equivalent base capital cost under $3.5 billion for a 685 MW plant. It’s fair to say this compares well to some other low emission projects in Australia. As stated in the paper, “The majority of research emphasises that, so long as capital costs are controlled and projects meet the proposed schedules, SMRs may effectively compete with existing and proposed energy projects.”
Wouldn’t it take too long? There are many examples from distant and recent memory of nations rolling out nuclear energy programs quite rapidly. Engaging with the US, Canada, and even Jordan now would facilitate this. And considering that the most optimistic projection from Australia’s market operator still sees 42% fossil fuels on the electric grid in 2030, this would be just the sort of clean energy ambition which we’re missing.
Certainly we have talked with and been in contact with people from Australia with respect to potentially deploying NuScale technology in Australia. We do think that, for lots of reasons, Australia would benefit from nuclear power, for the same reasons that many other countries would, that being you have a technology that’s carbon-free, it’s economic and it also provides you energy security… And Australia certainly has a lot of uranium and it makes it seem to make even more sense to utilise some of that uranium in a NuScale facility going forward. We have been afforded the opportunity with both Australia and other countries to actually discuss our technology with people both within the government and outside the government that are interested in potentially deploying the technology, and I would say that, over time, as NuScale continues to develop and they can see that we’re on a path to actually deploy the technology here in the near to medium term, that the pragmatism of climate change and energy security and all these things that are inherent in NuScale technology make it a pretty compelling case…
~ Jay Surina, CFO of NuScale
This would even slot in nicely with an envisaged solar- and wind-dominated supply system, as NuScale modules are designed to operate flexibly. In fact, their benefit to the system as firm capacity is deceptively obvious:
If you want an ultra-low carbon renewable energy system, you need storage and flexibility. And if you have storage and flexibility, then renewables play just fine with nuclear.
It has to be noted that if cautions regarding the possible system thresholds for intermittent energy sources prove accurate, then commitment to nuclear capacity build will be invaluable insurance as we pass the 2030 timeframe.
Australia is already internationally involved in the development of advanced next-generation nuclear energy technology through the Generation IV Forum. This will probably be vital for decarbonising non-electrical heat demand in the future. But today, NuScale represents what may prove to be the first deployable, dispatchable electricity source available to us since hydroelectricity, but at a much more human scale. It’s time to start getting ready.
If you meet someone, and then you get talking, you know, what do you do, what are you studying and you say nuclear engineering, the conversation never stops there, people always have questions… I’d get a lot of questions on the merits of nuclear energy… when people meet me and meet someone that is a nuclear engineer, it humanises the technology, that it’s not this big scary thing.
It all just starts with connecting on values. One thing we haven’t always been good at in the nuclear energy field has been humanising the technology, we don’t bring the people into it as much as we should. We start with the technology and “look at how amazing our reactor is” and forget about the people aspect of it, although we have many great people working in the field, and so many young people working within nuclear energy right now, which has been so exciting to see…
~ Lenka Kollar, Director of Business Strategy, NuScale
Oscar Archer holds a PhD in chemistry and has been analysing energy issues for over 13 years, focusing on nuclear technology for 4, with a background in manufacturing and QA. By day he works in energy efficiency research & development. He helps out at Adelaide-based Bright New World as Senior Advisor and writes for The Fourth Generation. Find him @OskaArcher on Twitter.
And no, he’s never received anything from NuScale.