IAEA turns focus on SMR economics in new study

An International Atomic Agency’s (IAEA) project, due to begin at the end of this year, will focus on deployment models, costing, financing and broader economic issues related to small modular reactors (SMRs), the agency says.

There are around 60 SMR designs currently in development (Source: IAEA)

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The high capital costs of large reactors, the need for generators that serve smaller grids and a push for more versatile generators has driven developers toward small reactor units which can work independently or via modules and that has prompted the development of a large number of diverse technologies.

Worldwide, there are currently around 60 SMR design and concepts under development with a varying level of readiness, the agency says. The study aims to analyse their costs and delivery times and develop business models to address market needs and expectations.

IAEA defines small reactors as those that generate up to 300 MWe.

IAEA’s 3-year Coordinated Research Project (CPR) will produce a dedicated study of the SMRs available, or in production, by bringing together technology and business developers to provide member states with a framework for the economic appraisal of SMR development and deployment.

“The approach would account for differences in technology readiness levels between SMR designs and specifics of the technologies being considered and also potential end-users, revenue streams, and risk profiles, attached to each concept,” Henri Paillère, Planning and Economic Studies Section Head for the IAEA, told Nuclear Energy Insider.

SMRs are proving especially attractive for countries just embarking on using nuclear power, many of which are emerging economies, and the report aims to help those countries to understand the approach to evaluate the cost of constructing an SMR and the cost of producing electricity, given different country and site parameters.

The World Nuclear Association notes that an additional reason for the growing interest in the new generators is that they can be slotted into brownfields sites in place of decommissioned coal-fired plants, some 90% of which generate less than 500 MWe.

(Source: IAEA)

Member state proposals

Participation proposals are due at the end of April, a deadline the agency does not believe will be negatively affected by the current COVID-19 pandemic, though they note the IAEA may be forced to plan via teleconference with member states.

“Multiple Member States sent us official requests to be part of this project. We expect between 10 and 20 proposals,” says Paillère.

The use of SMRs is not restricted to utilities but the nascent technology has also proven popular amongst new, smaller, dedicated users such as mining companies, individual industries and remote communities.

VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland is currently working on a SMR design that can power the district heating networks of Finnish cities of all sizes, an application of the reactors that will be included in the IAEA study.

The study aims to produce “a framework for the systematic assessment of SMR projects, independent of the type of technology … It is also an opportunity to receive input from new potential users,” Stefano Monti, Nuclear Power Technology Development Section Head, Department of Nuclear Energy, for the IAEA, tells Nuclear Energy Insider.

“The CRP report is, first of all, aimed at informing Member States about the economic challenges and opportunities that SMRs represent. But this report will also be of common interest to the energy users as well as industry in general,” says Monti.

It will look at, not only the economic impact of SMR development and deployment but also the employment opportunities and technological spinoffs.
“These must be quantified and communicated to gain societal support,” Monti says.

Key Metrics

The CPR will aim to closely examine a range of key metrics associated with the small modular reactor industry, as well as costs of project development activities and reactor construction, says Paillère.

The CPR will look at SMRs’ share in future electricity, heat processing, the ancillary services market and sea-water desalination.

It will also look at deployment strategies, including markets to target and their positioning against other technologies, costs and lead times with relation to project development activities, reactor construction, commissioning and operation, such as operation and maintenance and fuel expenditures, key metrics associated with funding and financing and measures of any macroeconomic impact, the agency said.

By Paul Day