Are small modular reactors an opportunity for Poland?

The topic of small modular reactors (SMR) is frequently mentioned in debates about the Polish nuclear programme. Is the implementation of such units on the Vistula River justified?

Currently, small modular reactors (SMRs) are one element of technology with very high expectations. Advanced work on this type of device is already in progress in South Korea, the USA and Great Britain to name a few. A number of countries have already expressed their interest in this topic. Estonia has recently made strong announcements on this issue, which has declared the construction of an SMR to decarbonise its energy mix.

Who is the leader?

The most far-reaching work on the implementation of small modular reactors is currently in progress in the USA. The military is in the lead here because it considers these units as a chance for clean power for far-off bases and bridgeheads. In 2019, the Pentagon specified its requirements for the designers of these devices. According to the Defense One website, a military modular reactor for the US Army should have an installed power of 1 to 10 megawatts, the ability to be loaded on a lorry or a C-17 aircraft, and work for at least three years without refuelling. It is supposed to be a readily available unit; it should take no more than 72 hours to commission it, and no more than a week to assembly it. At the same time, the reactor must maintain the highest safety standards. In order to support research on such technologies, the American administration launched the so-called Pele project, which aims at inventing a reactor prototype with a capacity of 1 to 5 megawatts. The second such project, simultaneously in progress, aims at determining the possibility of acquiring reactors with a capacity of 2 to 10 MW.

In March 2020, the U.S. Department of Defense awarded contracts to BWX Technologies Inc., Westinghouse Government Services, and X-energy. Pursuant to these contracts, the companies have 2 years to develop a plan for a mobile modular microreactor that could be delivered to the US forces stationed outside the American continent.

As well as the military effort, work is also being done in the United States to allow the use of SMRs for civilian purposes. The US Department of Energy has approved a long-term support mechanism for the Carbon Free Power Project (CFPP), which is to build a power plant based on Small Modular Reactors (SMR) from NuScale. It will be the first project of this type in the United States.

The unit, built by CFPP, is to have a capacity of 720 MW. There will be 12 SMRs working there. The grants paid for over a 10-year period allow the energy price (LCOE) from this power plant to be USD 55 per MWh.

Time is of the essence

Although the work on SMRs looks very promising, considering them as the leading nuclear technology for decarbonising Poland's energy mix would be extremely risky. There is still no such unit in operation. They are just being implemented, which generates a lot of doubts regarding the final costs and technical possibilities of such installations. In addition, the schedule must be considered. Poland must reduce the emissions of its energy sector as soon as possible. Waiting for SMRs to appear would be a waste of time. Therefore, small nuclear reactors cannot be a substitute for large units.

This does not mean that there is no place for SMRs in Poland. They can be implemented simultaneously by private entrepreneurs interested in uncoupling the capabilities of these units to their own decarbonisation tasks.

An example of such synergy is the interest in small modular reactors expressed by the chemical company, i.e. Synthos. The company has entered a strategic partnership agreement with GE Hitachi Nuclear to develop the BWRX-300 reactor technology. The so-called feasibility study was carried out. Synthos also started cooperation with Fortum so as to ultimately improve the licensing process of this unit in Poland based on the Finnish experience. In turn, Excel Services developed a roadmap for the regulatory implementation of BWRX-300 for a Polish company. A dialogue with the National Atomic Energy Agency was also started. Thus, Synthos has a chance to become the first Polish private company (and one of the first such entities in the world) to operate its own small modular reactors.

Author: Jakub Wiech, deputy editor-in-chief of Energetyka24
The title and subtitles were prepared by the TOGETAIR editorial team