Small, Modular Nuclear Reactor Provides Renewables Boost

Small, Modular Nuclear Reactor Provides Renewables Boost


Nuclear power is perhaps the most controversial way to generate energy we have today, with maybe the exception of coal. It has plenty of advantages, such as its low operating costs after the initial investment, its low carbon footprint, its reliability and its fast power-up time make it a perfect complement to the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources. On the other hand, nuclear power stations can be very expensive to initially set up, and when they fail, they can fail catastrophically with long-term harm to the environment. Spent fuel and waste is hard to dispose of safely, remaining radioactive for thousands of years.

 

Despite those drawbacks, nuclear sources currently make up around 11% of global electricity generation. Some countries who rely on nuclear even export the electricity to neighbours that don’t have their own capability, like France providing much of the electricity used by Germany and Italy. However, the country that is probably providing the most innovation today is China. It currently has 49 nuclear reactors producing 47.5 GW of energy, but plans many more with 17 currently in construction and a promise to spend up to $440 bn on new plants over the next 15 years. Now, China has revealed that it has developed and installed its first small modular reactor.

 

The new reactor belongs to China Huaneng Group Co, and is situated at the company’s facility in at Shidao Bay. It is capable of supplying 200-megawatts to the energy grid in Shandong province. The facility also has a second reactor that is currently undergoing testing before becomming fully operable by the middle of 2023. What is unique about these reactors is that they are the first designs in the world to be based on a pebble-bed modular high-temperature gas-cooled reactor design. This type of reactor heats up helium instead of water to produce power. It is also a safer design that shuts down passively if there is a fault.

 

Around five of the new small reactors would provide equivalent power to China’s original large reactor design. However, the new design offers more flexibility at a far lower cost. Although the exact cost of the new reactor has not yet been disclosed, the smaller, modular design should allow it to be built more quickly and cheaply than larger bespoke reactors. The modular design will also allow the reactors to be built at a central area and then transported to the location where to be put together, decreasing the cost further. China is not the only country with an interest in smaller, modular reactors, the US, UK and Russia are all believed to be working on their own designs. The flexibility of designs like these will make them even more suitable to work alongside renewable energy sources than traditional nuclear plants in a future carbon-free electricity grid.