Small Modular Reactors


  • The recent uptick in coal consumption in Europe, despite the increase in solar and wind power, suggests that reliable, 24/7 low-carbon electricity resources are critical to ensure the deep decarbonisation of power generation, along with grid stability and energy security. Small modular reactors — a type of nuclear reactor — can be helpful to India in this regard.

Key Facts

  • The world’s quest to decarbonise itself is guided, among other things, by the UN Sustainable Development Goal 7: “to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”.
  • Since the world still depends on fossil fuels for 82% of its energy supply, decarbonising the power sector is critical; the share of electricity in final energy consumption will also increase by 80%-150% by 2050.

What are the challenges of decarbonisation?

  • Solar and wind energy alone will not suffice to provide affordable energy for everyone.
  • In decarbonised electricity systems with a significant share of renewable energy, the addition of at least one firm power-generating technology can improve grid reliability and reduce costs.
  • According to the International Energy Agency, the demand for critical minerals like lithium, nickel, cobalt, and rare earth elements, required for clean-energy production technologies, is likely to increase by up to 3.5 times by 2030. 
  • Large capital investments to develop new mines and processing facilities. 
  • The environmental and social impacts of developing several new mines and plants.

What are the issues with nuclear power?

  • Nuclear power plants (NPPs) generate 10% of the world’s electricity and help it avoid 180 billion cubic metres of natural gas demand and 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions every year.
  • Any less nuclear power could make the world’s journey towards net-zero more challenging and more expensive.
  • NPPs are efficient users of land and their grid integration costs are lower than those associated with variable renewable energy (VRE) sources because NPPs generate power 24×7 in all kinds of weather.
  • Nuclear power also provides valuable co-benefits like high-skill jobs in technology, manufacturing, and operations.
  • Conventional NPPs have generally suffered from time and cost overruns.
  • As an alternative, several countries are developing small modular reactors (SMRs) — nuclear reactors with a maximum capacity of 300 MW — to complement conventional NPPs.
Small Modular Reactors (SMRs)
Source: IAEA

What are Small Nuclear Modular Reactors?

  • SMRs can be installed in decommissioned thermal power plant sites by repurposing existing infrastructure, thus sparing the host country from having to acquire more land and/or displace people beyond the existing site boundary.

What are the advantages of SMRs?

  • SMRs are designed with a smaller core damage frequency (the likelihood that an accident will damage the nuclear fuel) and source term (a measure of radioactive contamination) compared to conventional NPPs.
  • They also include enhanced seismic isolation for more safety.
  • SMR designs are also simpler than those of conventional NPPs and include several passive safety features, resulting in a lower potential for the uncontrolled release of radioactive materials into the environment.
  • The amount of spent nuclear fuel stored in an SMR project will also be lower than that in a conventional NPP.
  • Studies have found that SMRs can be safely installed and operated at several brownfield sites that may not meet the more stringent zoning requirements for conventional NPPs.
  • The power-plant organisation can also undertake community work, as the Nuclear Power Corporation did in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu, before the first unit was built.
  • Accelerating the deployment of SMRs under international safeguards, by implementing a coal-to-nuclear transition at existing thermal power-plant sites, will take India closer to net-zero and improve energy security because uranium resources are not as concentrated as reserves of critical minerals.
  • Most land-based SMR designs require low-enriched uranium, which can be supplied by all countries that possess uranium mines and facilities for such enrichment if the recipient facility is operating according to international standards.
  • Since SMRs are mostly manufactured in a factory and assembled on site, the potential for time and cost overruns is also lower.
  • Further, serial manufacture of SMRs can reduce costs by simplifying plant design to facilitate more efficient regulatory approvals and experiential learning with serial manufacturing.
  • Since SMRs are designed to operate for more than 40 years, the levelised cost of electricity is $60-90 per MWh.

What is the need for an efficient regulatory regime?

  • This said, an efficient regulatory regime comparable to that in the civil aviation sector — which has more stringent safety requirements — is important if SMRs are to play a meaningful role in decarbonising the power sector.
  • This can be achieved if all countries that accept nuclear energy direct their respective regulators to cooperate amongst themselves and with the International Atomic Energy Agency to harmonise their regulatory requirements and expedite statutory approvals for SMRs based on standard, universal designs.

How can SMRs be integrated with the national grid?

  • India’s Central Electricity Authority (CEA) projects that the generation capacity of coal-based thermal power plants (TPPs) in India must be increased.
  • The CEA also projects that TPPs will provide more than half of the electricity generated in India by 2031-2032 while VRE sources and NPPs will contribute 35% and 4.4%, respectively.
  • Since India has committed to become net-zero by 2070, the country’s nuclear power output needs a quantum jump.
  • Since the large investments required for NPP expansion can’t come from the government alone, attracting investments from the private sector (in PPP mode) is important to decarbonise India’s energy sector.

What are the legal and regulatory changes required?

  • The Atomic Energy Act will need to be amended to allow the private sector to set up SMRs.
  • To ensure safety, security, and safeguards, control of nuclear fuel and radioactive waste must continue to lie with the Government of India.
  • The government will also have to enact a law to create an independent, empowered regulatory board with the expertise and capacity to oversee every stage of the nuclear power generation cycle.
  • The security around SMRs must remain under government control, while the Nuclear Power Corporation can operate privately-owned SMRs during the hand-holding process.
  • Finally, the Department of Atomic Energy must improve the public perception of nuclear power in India by better disseminating comprehensive environmental and public health data of the civilian reactors, which are operating under international safeguards, in India.

Source: TH

Visit Abhiyan PEDIA (One of the Most Followed / Recommended) for UPSC Revisions: Click Here

IAS Abhiyan is now on Telegram: Click on the Below link to Join our Channels to stay Updated 

IAS Abhiyan Official: Click Here to Join

For UPSC Mains Value Edition (Facts, Quotes, Best Practices, Case Studies): Click Here to Join

Leave a Reply