France is investing 100 billion euros in “pocket-size reactors”: a cost-effective alternative that has been drawing the attention of world powers
Several European countries are opting out of nuclear reactors. Germany is shutting down its last operational plants in 2022, with no replacement solution in sight. Belgium is following in 2025, and Spain in 2035 – a year after Switzerland. Italy has a history of strongly opposing the construction of nuclear reactors, despite importing most of its energy from France.
This has led to the hiatus of several French plants, and possibly their shutdown. Which is not without consequences. The costs of the procedure are estimated around several hundred million euros for a single reactor, although in hindsight it is more likely to approach a billion euros.
Their maintenance is costly and time-consuming as well.
Nevertheless, Europe is not envisioning outright dismissal of nuclear power sources. For instance, despite its determination to shut down nuclear plants, Belgium is considering SMR as an alternative.
With the current state of events, gas might not be a viable option for the time being. European governments are currently being urged to switch to state-owned, independent electric energy sources. However, the green transition cannot be fast forwarded to the extent required, due to the cost and production time of such structures.
Due to their reduced size, SMR can be assembled at a competitive price. 100 million to 1,5 billion is their current range, versus an average of 25 billion as to their traditional alternatives.
Combined with their simplified design befitting mass production, this feature compensates in cost-effectiveness for their volumes, which are lower than those generated by large-scale reactors.
All while exploiting already existing technologies: no need to invest on additional research.
SMR can be installed on existing electricity networks without being resized. Besides, they are transportable, which lays the groundwork for export and makes them a potential commercial asset.
They can be complementary to the current structures, or be deployed independently in smaller, isolated contexts such as islands or mines.
The energy they produce is decarbonated. Their power being tantamount to that of carbon or gas plants, they are considered the most likely replacement for these sources.
SMR are not only a valid source of electric energy. Their technology can also be applied to heat and hydrogen production as well as the desalination of sea water.
They are currently being used mainly on sea, for submarines, aircraft carriers, and icebreakers.
Security-wise, their cooling requires less material, the risk of severe accidents being therefore remarkably decreased. Their safety requirements are the same as traditional reactors.
Furthermore, SMR are less subjected to weather-related happenings.
China has recently approved a project for the construction of a demonstration SMR.
Russia’s SMR has been operational since 2020. It is located on a ship, providing with power a small village and its surrounding mining and oil industries.
The US are pioneers in the field, and their NuScale project has expanded to Romania.
Belgium, Japan, South Africa, Canada and South Corea followed with their own SMR technology. Mostly, 4th generation reactors called “AMR” aimed to produce heat.
As part of a plan called “France 2030”, revolving around the technologies in which the hexagon is going to invest in the future, the French government has allotted 1 billion eurosto SMR.
The Nuward project (NUclear + forWARD) is the French response to the international offer, and its release is due between 2030 and 2035. Such timing is conceived to put this solution forward by the time French carbon plants reach the end of their lifespan.
Nuward promises lower operating and maintenance prices compared to a fair share of its US counterparts.
Several countries, inside and outside Europe, are voicing their interest in the project.
This technology is starting to be acknowledged on an international level. In order for it to be more widespread, fast and economical production methods prove necessary.
The very features of this product make it suitable for factory-like processes. Its standardized installation, small dimensions, and simplified modular structure may pave the way for series manufacturing.
The industry needs to find a way to make its production faster, all while keeping it cost-effective. The engineering design phase needs a boost that at the moment can either be achieved by recruitment campaigns, or outsourcing.
These are the traditional methods. But are there other performant, innovative, and affordable solutions?
This is where AI assisted generative engineering tools come into play. Mechanical engineering workflows can be automated through RPA-like technology, whose use cases are rapidly multiplying.
For instance, Dessia Technologies has arisen in this field with a solution that helps engineers with their everyday tasks. While the engineering bots execute the tasks and generate dozens of feasible configurations, engineers can focus on analyzing those solutions and making decisions.
This technology is currently applied to modular platform strategies in the aeronautic, railroad, and car industries. In a near future, it might very well expand to the construction of architectures such as SMR, leading to shorter development time that favors creativity.