The 'typical' giant cooling towers of a nuclear plant, this one the Grafenrheinfeld Nuclear Power Plant in Germany, scheduled to close in 2022. (Christian VisualBeo Horvat

Small nuclear reactors: green power, or not?

After the initial enthusiasm of nuclear power starting in the 1950’s, that enthusiasm began to wane a few decades later, especially after the Hollywood film, The China Syndrome, and the almost simultaneous 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster. Now a newer idea is being promoted of these smaller localised reactors. Indeed, three of Canada’s provincial leaders recently signed a deal to develop the technology of SMR’s, or small modular reactors.

Warren Mabee (PhD) explains SMR’s. He’s the director of Queen’s University’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy in Kingston, Ontario.

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With the SL-1- US Army accident in 1961, the Three Mile Island disaster, Tchernobyl, and Fukashima, and many other accidents and incidents less reported, people began to be wary of nuclear power.

Professor Warren Mabee (PhD) is director of Queen’s University’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy (Queen’s U. Youtube)

However, with certain limitations to solar and wind power generation, and with tidal power still in its infancy, the idea of small localised reactors has grown.

Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp.’s Micro Modular Reactor Energy System is designed to fit in a standard shipping container. The company is partnering with Global First Power and Ontario Power Generation, who are in talks with Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and the CNSC about preparing a site for a reactor at AECL’s Chalk River Laboratories. Infrastructure is then added around the reactor, but still at a far far smaller scale than ‘traditional’ large reactors (Ultra Safe Nuclear)

What are small modular reactors?. These are reactors and accompanying infrastructure that are much much smaller than the typical huge installations usually associated with nuclear power generating plants.  The idea is that these localised reactors could be used to “green” the increasing need for power generation and could provide electricity for entire small towns, or localised sections of a large city.

A further indication of the relative compactness of SMR’s. An illustration shows a NuScale Power Module on a truck. NuScale is one of the small modular reactor companies whose designs are going through pre-licencing approval with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Many are designed to be small enough to transport by truck or by shipping container. (NuScale Power)

The SMR’s generate less than 300MW, and as little as 5Mw, and are compared to Canada’s current nuclear stations of 515 and 881MW. By further comparison, Fukashima’s six reactors produced a combined capacity 4.7 GW of electricity.

While there is ample power produced with no real carbon emissions, Mabee points out we still haven’t figured out what to do with the waste fuel and pipes and other parts that wear out and are radioactive for thousands of years.

The CANDU type Canadian design reactors don’t require the typical huge cooling towers but still require a huge infrastructure and space. This one at Point Lepreau New Brunswick generates 660MW. (Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission report to INRA, May 17 2018)

However he also notes that while there is electrical power loss as the huge central nuclear stations have to distribute that power over long networks, this would not nearly be the case for the SMR’s and their localised networks, making the system more efficient.

Refurbishing the core at Point Lepreau in 2012. Highly complex and astronomically expensive to repair, the problem also remains with all reactors of what to do with the old/used replaced parts which remain radioactive for centuries. (CBC)

Nuclear chemist and Saskatchewan Environmental Society board member Ann Coxworth quoted in the CBC says there are about 100 possible technological designs it would take years of testing and as many years to build. The first prototype would be ready for trials in Ontario only by 2030.

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2 comments on “Small nuclear reactors: green power, or not?
  1. Avatar seth dayal says:

    “Mabee points out we still haven’t figured out what to do with the waste fuel and pipes and other parts that wear out and are radioactive for thousands of years.”

    Yup we have – politicians won’t let us. Note that hockey arena sized pile of Candu nuke waste reduces to the level of natural uranium in 300 years and can be handled bare hands in a few dozen. Stuck in an empty drift in an old uranium mine nobody would notice.

    Compare that to the thousands of cubic miles of fossil and wind/solar fossil backup waste dumped into our air and water supply murdering millions annually.

    Nuclear central stations are close to load – no power losses.

    As a demonstrated science illiterate Coxworth seems unaware that Russia just put an sMR unit in Arctic service, while Canada’s Brookfield has its’ EVinci contracted for 2022 service. Nuscale is contacted for 2025.

    Big Oil employees a lot of antinuclear personnel.

  2. Avatar John Stewart says:

    Marc Montgomery, Warren Mabee and Ann Coxworth are knowledgeable people, but an article attempting to explain and assess SMRs ought to collect more diverse views and/or expertise that is closer to current developments in that technology.