Updated: Sep 23, 2021
Why this technology that could help save the world is not being given the attention it deserves
Back in the middle of the 20th Century, there was an element used in nuclear reactions, called thorium, that was superior to uranium in many ways. However, it was ultimately discarded because it was inferior in one specific aspect: producing plutonium, which was desired for creating nuclear weapons at the time.
Half a dozen decades later, innovative small modular reactors (SMRs) were showing promise using this long-forgotten fuel source, combining its inherently safer atomic structure with inherently safer reactor designs. SMRs have the potential to create nearly limitless, safe, carbon-free, and virtually radioactive waste-free electricity – so why isn’t there a rush to implement them in the quest to reach net-zero emissions?
Image credit: NuScale Power
This is the first entry in an upcoming collection of informal case studies looking at the current state of different sustainable tech solutions. Some are ready to use, some require more funding, and some have a complicated position, as we will discuss below with SMRs.
One goal of exploring these case studies is to highlight the importance of clear and informative communication with industries, governments, and the public to get the technologies with the best chance to make the world a more sustainable place to market – whether they involve carbon-free energy, plastics reduction, sustainable food production, or other innovative ideas.
Here at Linq Consulting, we specialize in three things: helping sustainable tech projects obtain funding, helping these projects meet their objectives through expert management, and providing effective communication to ensure successful projects can contribute to sustainable solutions in the real world.
We are exploring some of the most promising examples of emerging technologies that require help in one or more of these three areas in an effort to shed some light on the challenges and opportunities that exist – while highlighting any areas that can benefit from our expertise.
Below is our first informal case study and exploration of a potentially ground-breaking technology that first must overcome some significant hurdles to become a part of the global energy solution.
What are SMRs?
Advanced Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are a new generation of safer, cleaner, more scalable, and potentially more affordable nuclear power options. SMRs provide simplicity of design, enhanced safety features, economic savings, and quality. Their modular design allows for more flexibility compared to larger nuclear power plants, as modules can be added incrementally as demand for energy increases.
Image credit: Idaho Labs
SMRs are essentially smaller, more advanced nuclear fission reactors, which use the same process as traditional reactors by splitting atomic bonds to release energy (rather than nuclear fusion, which fuses atomic nuclei together in a process similar to what happens in the interior of stars), but are smaller than conventional large-scale reactors. Their size and modular designs allow for them to be manufactured off-site and then delivered to the location for final assembly. This minimizes costs and greatly improves construction schedules, which are two major issues facing conventional large-scale nuclear reactors.
Image credit: NRC
SMRs typically provide between 50 to 300MW of electricity, compared to the typical 1 GW that traditional large-scale reactors produce.
Additionally, one of their most promising aspects is they also present a high level of inherent safety, since they use passive safety factors based on natural phenomena, such as circulating the coolant using gravity or heat transmission with convection. This facilitates indefinite refrigeration without the need for any action from the operator, and without depending on external feeding or external water replacement. The addition of these features makes it impossible to have the same type of meltdowns or accidents that affected Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, or Fukashima. SMRs operate at atmospheric pressure, without high-pressure water cooling, and they contain passive shutdown measures if the core becomes overheated or unstable. These are literally ‘fail-safe’ measures: if all safety processes failed, the reactors would turn themselves off with no potential for release of radioactive substances.
There is also the possibility to partially or totally bury SMRs in the ground to improve their safety (resistance to air strikes or natural disasters) and improve their integration in their environment.
Why is thorium different?
There are several ways in which thorium is different than uranium, from its atomic structure to how it acts within nuclear reactors. Below are some key aspects of thorium regarding its advantages in terms of material properties, safety, and mining.
More abundant in nature than uranium
Fertile rather than fissile; it can only be used as a fuel in conjunction with a fissile material, which makes it inherently less radioactive
Can breed fissile uranium-233 to be used in various reactors
Well suited for molten salt reactors, as normal fuel fabrication is avoided
Limited radioactive debris
Better chemical stability and resistance to radioactivity resulting in improved safety as compared to uranium
Higher energy recovery, meaning less nuclear waste
Much higher difficulty to make nuclear weapons from material created in thorium-fueled reactors than uranium (one of the major drawbacks of nuclear power is the fear that countries that have the technology will use it to acquire nuclear weapons).
Safer and more efficient to mine than uranium, making it more “eco-friendly”
More cost-efficient as the percentage of thorium found in its ore is generally greater than the percentage of uranium found in its ore
Potential SMR Designs (with thorium as a fuel source)
Below are the six of the most promising SMR designs that are able to run with thorium as a fuel source, though two are covered in more detail because of their enhanced capabilities and applications. All information provided by the World Nuclear Association, https://www.world-nuclear.org/.
The four types of SMRs which are well-suited for thorium-based fuels, but are not optimal are:
Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs): well-established and widely deployed commercial technology for which there is extensive licensing experience.
Boiling (Light) Water Reactors (BWRs): well-understood and licensed reactor type; the design flexibility very good for being able to come up with suitable heterogeneous arrangements and create well-optimised thorium fuels.
High-Temperature Gas-Cooled Reactors (HTRs): very stable at high temperatures and can be irradiated for very long periods, deeply burning their original fissile charge in an efficient method of operation.
Pressurised (Light) Water Reactors (PWRs): not the perfect reactor in which to use thorium, but they are the industry workhorse and there is a lot of PWR licensing experience; viable early-entry thorium platform.
The SMR design that is optimally suited for thorium-based fuels are the Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs). These reactors are still at the design stage but are likely to be the best suited for using thorium as a fuel. The unique fluid fuel can incorporate thorium and uranium (U-233 and/or U-235) fluorides as part of a salt mixture that melts in the range 400-700ºC, with this liquid serving as both the heat transfer fluid and the matrix for the fissioning fuel. The fluid circulates through a core region and then through a chemical processing circuit that removes various fission products (poisons), including the valuable U-233. Molten salt reactors may be the safest and most reliable SMR ever created, with passive shutdown systems and atmospheric pressure, making it physically impossible to suffer a meltdown – the fuel is literally already melted.
A last SMR design that is promising, but that runs better on fuels other than thorium, are the Fast Neutron Reactors (FNRs). Thorium can serve as a fuel component for FNRs, however, there may be an even bigger advantage in using depleted uranium (DU) rather than thorium, thus using the entirety of spent fuel rods. This is because there is a huge amount of surplus DU, known more commonly as nuclear waste, available for use – FNRs could potentially generate clean electricity while simultaneously depleting radioactive waste. For this reason, it is actually less beneficial to use thorium in these systems.
SMR Benefits as a Sustainable Technology for the Future
The main benefit of SMR technology is the ability to provide carbon-free electricity. But the real depth of benefits come from the scalability potential. SMRs could be used to power big cities or low-density remote areas that have been traditionally marginalized from accessible, clean energy. Since they are built in factories, production can be streamlined and reactors can be delivered onsite in the back of a large truck. These are all important factors to consider, however, the role that SMRs could fill on the path to net-zero emissions could be larger than all other energy sources, given:
The global grid needs to grow between 2 - 3 times to meet electrification goals
The physical limits of renewable energy storage capacity will require alternative baseload carbon-free electricity, likely in the form of fusion (which could be decades away) or SMRs
Simply put, renewables are an important part of our energy future, but it is a monumental task getting them to provide 100% of the current grid demand – and it will be physically impossible to provide up to 3 times the current grid capacity with renewables alone. That means we must severely reduce our energy usage, even though demand continues to rise, or we bring alternative carbon-free generation sources online to work alongside renewables, provided, of course, they have been proven to be reliable in real-world operation.
What is the current SMR landscape?
SMRs are currently somewhere between the developmental stage and the early deployment phase. At this time, there are very few SMRs in active operation anywhere in the world – with no thorium MSRs, which may be the most useful of all designs– but dozens of companies are working on several different designs with plans to have working reactors operating by the mid-2020s. The tables below list the notable projects developing these key technologies.
SMRs currently in operation:
As the above table shows, there are no MSRs or FNRs. However, there are plans for several of these and other types of SMRs to be deployed in the near future, as shown below.
SMR designs under construction:
SMRs for near-term deployment – development well advanced:
What are the current challenges facing SMR deployment?
Even with the promise of these 18 projects that are in the advanced levels of deployment, there are real challenges to getting this technology to market. These mainly include:
Lack of public support
Cost hesitancy is a legitimate problem, as it is still not clear whether these reactors can be produced and operated at costs compatible with current electricity prices, especially as the cost of solar drops year after year. Still, SMR electricity is expected to be cost-competitive at current rates, at less than €0.10 per kWh, but solar has already dropped below €0.05/kWh in several countries – with projections to drop even further in the coming years.
Safety worries are largely unfounded and tied to previous nuclear scares, all of which happened with technology that was as different to SMRs as geothermal energy is to coal power (traditional nuclear and SMRs both use fission, which is their only commonality; geothermal and coal both use steam to power turbines, which is their only commonality). However, although SMRs are in theory much safer, there are still no real world experiences to back up these claims – and there won’t be until they are given a chance. This is a risky catch-22 that is wasting precious time that could be spent seeing if SMRs are as safe as theory suggests, which could maybe put us on a possible path to net-zero emissions by 2050.
Public support is lacking due to a combination of unfounded nuclear fears and little, if any, knowledge about what SMRs are or what they could provide. This is true in most areas of the world outside of China, though the EU seems to be more open to the ideas of SMRs than North America, for example as shown by Estonia’s push for SMRs described here. Public information campaigns are desperately needed, but there will always be pushback against any form of nuclear energy from some groups, regardless of what the science says.
Lastly, regulatory hurdles are serious obstacles that are hindering the ability of moving forward with the above mentioned challenges. Some countries have better regulatory readiness, such as China, which might lead the way on SMR deployment. However, other countries, such as Canada, have made recent regulatory concessions to at least permit pilot projects to proceed in an effort to try and aggressively pursue net-zero emissions targets. The UK has also made a deal with Rolls Royce to deliver a market-ready SMR by 2030.
Given the current state of the SMR landscape, there should be operational reactors on the market before 2030, which may still be enough time to sprint towards net-zero by 2050 as SMRs come online to compliment renewable capacity, which will likely be nearing its physical limitations for generation and storage. One key component of ensuring SMRs will be given a chance to help in mitigating emissions is to have extensive communication around the various projects and the results that are being obtained. This is especially important given the public uncertainty and unfamiliarity surrounding SMRs and nuclear energy in general.
What kind of funding is available for SMRs?
Adequate funding can not only accelerate the implementation of technologies like SMRs, but it can be the difference between even being able to explore their validity and moving past the prototype stage in the lab.
Potential Horizon Europe Funding
Horizon Europe has succeeded Horizon 2020 as the next iteration of EU-backed funding targeted at developing sustainable tech ideas. While SMRs are far from a new or emerging idea, there is still a great deal of potential for SMR projects to receive funding from this source, especially if they have well-designed plans on how they can successfully implement carbon-free energy within their allocated budget. Receiving funding from Horizon Europe is largely about the likelihood of producing a real-world, functional product that will accelerate climate action in the near-term future. A project that can demonstrate its ability to do this could be considered for funding.
National Government Funding
Several national governments have set aside funding for SMRs in particular, whether it is in the form of R&D grants or subsidies for carbon-free electricity. China leads the world in government funded SMR projects, but there are also varying sources of funding from several governments in countries that are actively pursuing SMR tech, such as India, Norway, Canada, and the US.
High Net Worth Individual Funding
Various high net worth individuals with an interest in sustainable development have invested in SMR tech, the most notable being Bill Gates. He founded Terra Energy, which is focused on fast neutron breeder SMRs, with the aim of reducing nuclear waste while producing carbon-free electricity. Warren Buffet, the famed investor behind Berkshire Hathaway, has invested several billion dollars in SMR funding, and many other individuals have invested varying portions of their portfolios into SMR ventures.
SMR Tech Summary
Overall, the main takeaways from the current state of SMRs are:
SMR technology has great potential and offers several benefits that include carbon-free electricity, enhanced safety over traditional nuclear energy, better scalability, and easier implementation than traditional nuclear energy.
Pairing SMRs with thorium as a fuel source, particularly molten salt reactors (MSRs), further enhances the benefits of safety, including less radioactive waste and even better passive shutdown systems. This is next to a high energy efficiency, with one golf ball-sized sphere of thorium providing enough energy to run a 300 MW SMR for nearly a century.
Very few SMRs are currently in operation, with none that utilize molten salt reactors or employ thorium as a fuel source. There are still significant challenges surrounding uptake on these specific SMR iterations, though there is a lot of interest to move forward with them in various parts of the world.
Public perception of nuclear energy remains very negative, even with the massive differences in technology between traditional nuclear and SMRs. More public information campaigns are needed to clarify the technological and safety upgrades that SMRs present, though it will still likely be an uphill battle as there are strong anti-nuclear groups that will oppose any form of nuclear energy, no matter what the science has to say about efficacy or safety.
SMR uptake needs to occur fairly soon to help the world get on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050. Assuming the strategy of mass electrification is the best route to net-zero, the global electricity grid needs to expand by several times its current capacity to meet demand. SMRs (or some other form of baseload electricity, such as fusion, which is less likely at this moment) are necessary to reach the needed installed capacity.
How to find out more about SMR technology
We at Linq Consulting hope that this initial case study on sustainable technologies provides a valuable overview of a promising route to carbon-free emissions. SMRs certainly have the potential to play a large role in decarbonization of the global energy system – and proper communication of their merits and progress is critical to ensuring SMR technology is adequately explored as a possible energy cornerstone.
For further in-depth reading on SMR technology, we recommend these resources:
World Nuclear – Molten Salt Reactors https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/molten-salt-reactors.aspx
Overview of SMR projects worldwide - Market Potential for Near Term Deployment https://www.oecd-nea.org/jcms/pl_14924/small-modular-reactors-nuclear-energy-market-potential-for-near-term-deployment?details=true
If you have any questions about SMRs or any related subjects, contact us here. If you are currently developing a project that involves this or another type of sustainable technology and would like to discuss potential funding options, we can help you secure funding from a variety of sources, while providing management and communications services.
Contact us at email@example.com
Follow us @LinqConsulting on LinkedIn and Twitter