It lasted 12 seconds, covered 36 meters and barely lifted a few centimeters off the ground, but it was the first time that a human being achieved a controlled flight with an engine. The Wright brothers (dedicated to the repair and sale of bicycles) marked the beginning of the aviation era with their feat. However, the real revolution in the industry came decades later. When, in 1970, the jet engine democratized what until then had been enjoyed only by a privileged few with larger planes and cheaper flights. Will the nuclear industry manage to take a similar step?
Microwaves, toasters and... mini nuclear reactors?
Associated with power and fame, Rolls-Royce cars have been present at unrepeatable moments in history, such as the Beatles' reception at Buckingham Palace or the meeting between Churchill and Eisenhower. On this occasion, the British company intends (China permitting) to be remembered for its Small Modular Reactors (SMRs ). The project - which aims to supply energy for around one million homes - has completed the initial financing round after the last contribution of 100 million euros from the sovereign wealth fund of the State of Qatar and has the blessing, and the monetary support, of the British government of Boris Johnson.
At a time when Russia's war in Ukraine is pushing Western countries to break their energy dependence and accelerate the energy transition, SMRs are more attractive than ever. Building a conventional nuclear power plant is unsexy today. Projects must start at least a decade in advance and it is necessary to adapt to the location (you can't build a plant just anywhere) which generally causes delays in their construction. Inconveniences that raise its amortization costs, not only because of the large initial outlay to start it up (about 5 billion euros), but also because of the capital needed to keep it operational and to manage its waste afterwards.
The high production and operating costs of conventional nuclear power plants, as well as the ongoing debates about their safety and the management of radioactive waste, have led to a growing interest in SMRs as an alternative to the construction of a traditional plant," summarizes María Villa Alfageme, Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Physics II at the University of Seville, in an interview with Forbes. We could say that they have the same advantages as conventional reactors, but without the problems of current nuclear power plants," she adds.
These mini reactors are a tenth of the conventional size of a nuclear power plant and, therefore, are expected to be cheaper (about 2 billion euros). Their modular nature allows their components to be assembled at the factory and transported as a single unit by truck, train or ship to the assembly site. So, like toasters or microwave ovens, they are designed to become mass-produced products. A still remote possibility, despite which Rolls-Royce anticipates revenues far in excess of those earned on any of its previous products.
The inexorable passage of time
Although many consider mini reactors to be a revolutionary nuclear technology, they are not a recent development. The first emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s, but it is only today that they are proliferating as a source of energy. As the International Atomic Energy Agency confirms to Forbes, there are currently more than 70 designs under development in 18 countries. The UK, yes, but also France, Luxembourg, China, Canada, the USA and Japan, among others. And, probably, the list of interested parties will continue to grow because the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency estimates that around 9% of the world's total new nuclear construction in 2020-2035 could be mini nuclear reactors.
Another important knock on its success is the European Commission's latest push for nuclear technology. The European institution considers it necessary for the achievement of environmental goals. As the Nuclear Energy Forum points out to Forbes, "this is a positive and appropriate step and puts in place the importance of nuclear energy in the energy transition process".
A controversial decision that is expected to further increase the potential of small modular reactors, but which opens up another interesting debate: are they really key to achieving the goal of zero emissions by 2050? Dr. Alfageme of the University of Seville thinks so because, in her opinion, "it is becoming increasingly clear that, for the time being, the replacement of fossil fuel energy will not be done by a single alternative source, but by a combination of several". Other experts, such as Jorge Morales de Labra, industrial engineer and director of Próxima Energía, expressed their opposition to Forbes. ? Theyare not an energy source to be taken into account in the future because they have not solved the major problems of the technology, such as their lack of safety and their very high cost," he concludes.
The luxury carmaker Rolls-Royce has surprised many by announcing that it plans to manufacture SMRs, i.e. Small Modular Reactors.
It should be remembered that most SMR designs have not yet reached a stage of maturity sufficient to test their purported attributes. And as Eloy Sanz, researcher in Renewable Energies at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos and PhD in Chemical Engineering, reminds Forbes, "in the midst of a climate emergency, we cannot afford to waste time and money". Moreover, the diversity of configurations in current projects makes it more complicated to get the green light soon.
For example, the U.S. NuScale, Rolls-Royce and the China National Nuclear Corporation propose light water reactors; other designs are more exotic and use lead, molten sodium, or gaseous helium, instead of water, to cool their cores. A scenario that "implies that the usual established regulatory approaches need to be reviewed and ultimately adjusted to ensure an adequate level of safety," acknowledges the OECD.
In other words, it seems uncertain how long we will have to wait for these mini reactors to go from paper to the ground. Will they manage to beat the inexorable passage of time?