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Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

Context:

The world’s quest to decarbonise is guided by the UN SDG 7: “to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”. Small modular reactors – a type of nuclear reactor – can be helpful to India in this regard. 

Relevance:

GS III: Science and Technology

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Challenges of Decarbonisation
  2. Issues with Nuclear Power and Alternative
  3. Small Modular Reactors (SMRs)
  4. Challenges for India

Challenges of Decarbonisation:

  • Fossil Fuel Dependence: The global energy supply still heavily relies on fossil fuels, accounting for 82% of the total. This poses a challenge in transitioning to cleaner energy sources.
  • Electricity Demand: The share of electricity in final energy consumption is expected to rise significantly (80-150%) by 2050, which highlights the need for reliable and sustainable power sources.
  • Coal Consumption: Despite the growth of solar and wind power, there has been a recent increase in coal consumption in Europe. Ensuring consistent and reliable electricity resources is crucial for achieving deep decarbonisation in power generation.
  • Critical Minerals Demand: Clean-energy production technologies require critical minerals such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, and rare earth elements. The demand for these minerals is projected to surge by up to 3.5 times by 2030, leading to environmental and social challenges associated with mining and processing.
  • Global Mineral Control: A small number of nations control a significant portion (50-100%) of global extraction and processing capacities for critical minerals. This concentration poses geopolitical and supply chain risks.

Issues with Nuclear Power and Alternative:

  • Nuclear Power Benefits: Nuclear power plants (NPPs) contribute 10% of global electricity and help mitigate 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. They offer consistent power generation, unlike variable renewable energy sources.
  • Grid Integration Costs: NPPs have lower grid integration costs compared to variable renewable energy sources due to their continuous power generation regardless of weather conditions.
  • Co-Benefits: Nuclear power provides high-skill job opportunities in technology, manufacturing, and operations, contributing to economic growth.
  • Challenges with Conventional NPPs: Conventional NPPs have faced challenges such as time and cost overruns, as well as the risk of nuclear accidents, exemplified by the Fukushima incident in Japan.
  • Small Modular Reactors (SMRs): Some countries are exploring small modular reactors as an alternative. These compact reactors offer potential benefits in terms of cost, safety, and scalability.

Small Modular Reactors (SMRs)

Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are advanced nuclear reactors designed to have a smaller power capacity compared to traditional nuclear power reactors. Here are the key characteristics, advantages, safety features, and disadvantages of SMRs:

Characteristics:
  • Small: SMRs have a power capacity of up to 300 MW per unit, which is about one-third of the generating capacity of conventional nuclear reactors.
  • Modular: SMRs are designed to be modular and portable. Components can be factory-assembled and transported as units to installation sites.
  • Reactors: SMRs use nuclear fission to generate heat for electricity production.
Advantages:
  • Efficiency: SMRs are designed for high capacity factors (exceeding 90%) and can produce a significant amount of low-carbon electricity.
  • Hybrid Energy Systems: SMRs can complement renewable energy sources by providing consistent power, enhancing overall system efficiency.
  • Off-Site Manufacturing: Factory assembly of components saves construction time and reduces costs.
  • Lower Costs: SMRs are designed for cost-effectiveness, requiring less fuel and fewer staff for assembly, maintenance, and operation.
  • Flexibility: SMRs can adjust electricity generation based on demand, making them suitable for remote locations.
  • Site Repurposing: SMRs can be installed in existing thermal power plant sites by repurposing infrastructure.
Safety Features:
  • Reduced Risk: SMRs are designed with lower core damage frequency and radioactive contamination compared to conventional nuclear power plants (NPPs).
  • Enhanced Seismic Isolation: SMRs incorporate advanced seismic isolation techniques for improved safety during earthquakes.
  • Passive Safety: SMRs feature passive safety systems, minimizing the potential release of radioactive materials.
Disadvantages:
  • Lack of Development: SMRs are not yet widely deployed for power generation.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: Achieving economic benefits depends on large-scale production and deployment.
  • Licensing Challenges: The licensing process for new SMR designs can be lengthy and costly, as it was historically developed for large commercial reactors.

Challenges for India:

India faces several challenges in its energy sector as it strives to balance its energy needs, environmental commitments, and economic growth. Some of the key challenges include:

Carbon Emissions and Net-Zero Commitment:

  • India’s commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2070 poses a significant challenge, requiring a major shift away from fossil fuels.
  • The reliance on coal-based thermal power plants (TPPs) for electricity generation contributes to carbon emissions and air pollution.

Energy Transition and Diversification:

  • Balancing the transition towards cleaner energy sources while meeting growing energy demands is a complex task.
  • India needs to diversify its energy mix by increasing the share of renewable energy sources (VRE), nuclear power, and other low-carbon options.

Scaling Up Nuclear Power:

  • India’s nuclear power output needs to increase substantially to meet its clean energy goals and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
  • Developing and deploying new nuclear power plants, including Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), requires significant investments, technological advancements, and regulatory approvals.

Energy Security and Reliability:

  • While integrating more variable renewable energy sources (VRE) like solar and wind is crucial, ensuring grid stability and energy security is challenging due to their intermittent nature.
  • Balancing the grid and ensuring reliable power supply during peak demand periods remains a priority.

Infrastructure and Investment:

  • Scaling up renewable energy and nuclear power requires substantial investments in infrastructure, technology, and skilled workforce.
  • Attracting private investments, both domestic and foreign, is essential for the development of these sectors.

Policy and Regulatory Framework:

  • Clear and consistent policies and regulations are needed to incentivize investments in renewable energy and nuclear power.
  • Streamlining permitting and approval processes can accelerate project implementation.

Public Acceptance and Safety Concerns:

  • Expanding nuclear power faces challenges related to public acceptance, safety concerns, and waste management.
  • Addressing these concerns and ensuring the highest safety standards are crucial for building public confidence.

Technological Advancements:

  • Advancements in energy storage, grid management, and nuclear technology are essential for optimizing renewable energy integration and enhancing nuclear safety.

International Collaboration:

  • Collaborating with international partners can provide India with access to advanced technologies, expertise, and best practices in renewable energy and nuclear power.

-Source: The Hindu


March 2024
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