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Role of Small Modular Reactor (SRM) in energy transition (Special)

  • Category
    Ecology and Environment
  • Published
    11th Aug, 2023


As India race to reach net-zero emissions and stave off climate change, nuclear energy is poised to play a vital role in decarbonising electricity and hard-to-abate sectors.  Small modular reactor (SRM)– a type of nuclear reactor – can be helpful to India in this regard.

What is the need to transform the energy sector?

  • The world is at a decisive moment in the fight against climate change.
  • With greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continuing to riseand average temperatures increasing, achieving net zero emissions by mid-century has become an urgent priority to avoid catastrophic climate impacts.
  • To achieve net zero and limit future warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels in line with the Paris Agreement, nothing less than a complete transformation of the global energy system is required. 

The scale of net zero challenge

  • Under the Paris Agreement, over 190 countries have committed to limiting global warming to well below 2C, preferably 1.5C, compared to pre-industrial levels.
  • However, the world has already warmed about 1.1C, according to NASA.
  • To have a 50% chance of hitting the 1.5C target, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates net-zero CO2 emissions must be reached globally around 2050, requiring deep cuts to GHG emissions of about 45% by 2030. 

Where does nuclear energy come into picture?

  • While renewable energy from solarwindhydropower, and biomasswill shoulder much of the burden, there is growing recognition that nuclear power also has a vital role to play. 
  • Nuclear Energyoffers a proven, always-on source of carbon-free electricity that can balance the variable output from renewables.
  • It can also help decarbonise hard-to-abate sectors like heavy industry and shipping. 

The Evolving Nuclear Technology Landscape

  • Small modular reactors (SMRs)
  • High-temperature reactors
  • Fast neutron reactors
  • Molten salt reactors
  • Microreactors
  • Fusion

How much nuclear energy need to be produced reach net zero?

  • There are currently 439 nuclear reactors in operation globally, with an estimated 413GW of operating capacity in 2022, accounting for around 10% of global power production.
  • Under the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Net Zero Scenario, the nuclear industry would need to nearly double its capacity by 2050.
  • Specifically, to reach its net zero emissions scenario, the IEA forecasts that nuclear capacity needs to reach 812GW by 2050.
    • Under this scenario, average annual additions need to reach c25GW per year over the next three decades.

Why Nuclear Energy is Essential to Reaching Net Zero?

Challenges of nuclear energy

  • Scalable low-carbon generation capacity
  • System stability
  • Low-carbon heat for industry
  • Clean hydrogen production
  • Compact land footprint
  • Proven reliability and safety
  • Protection of national security: Leadership in nuclear energy maintains safety and non-proliferation standards globally.
  • Employment generation
  • Nuclear boosts international development
  • High upfront capital costs
  • Waste management (radioactives)
  • Proliferation risk
  • Safety Concerns


What about other eco-friendly sources?

  • Renewable energy sources such as onshore and offshore wind, utility-scale and distributed solar, hydropower, geothermal, tidal, and sustainable bioenergy have grown exponentially over the past decade and will undoubtedly deliver the bulk of future emissions reductions.
  • However, despite their tremendous promise and competitiveness, renewables alone cannot achieve full decarbonisation. 
  • Challenges: intermittency, energy storage, transmission, and seasonal variability.

India’s nuclear energy capacity

  • The subcontinent currently has 22 reactors in operation with a total net capacity of around 6780 MW and is hoping to increase this almost threefold to a total capacity of 22,480 MW by 2031.

India does not allow foreign investment in the nuclear power.

  • It is not only considering expanding its large nuclear power plants (NPPs) fleet, but also developing small modular reactors (SMRs). 

The Atomic Energy Act (1962) of India is the foundational legislation that governs all regulations on the civil use of nuclear energy.

What are Small Modular Nuclear reactors (SMRs)?

  • Small modular reactors (SMRs) are advanced nuclear reactors that have a power capacity of up to 300 MW (e) per unit, which is about one-third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors.

Many SMR projects that have already been ordered by European countries till 2035.

  • SMRs, which can produce a large amount of low-carbon electricity using:
  • Small– physically a fraction of the size of a conventional nuclear power reactor.
  • Modular – making it possible for systems and components to be factory-assembled and transported as a unit to a location for installation.
  • Reactors – harnessing nuclear fission to generate heat to produce energy.

Conventional Nuclear power plants vs. Small modular reactors:

  • Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs) are efficient users of land and their grid integration costs are lower than those associated with variable renewable energy (VRE) sources because NPPs generate power 24x7 in all kinds of weather.
  • As an alternative, several countries are developing small modular reactors (SMRs) – nuclear reactors with a maximum capacity of 300 MW – to complement conventional NPPs.
  • SMRs can be installed in decommissioned thermal power plant sites by repurposing existing infrastructure, thus sparing countries from having to acquire more land and/or displace people beyond the existing site boundary.
  • SMRs can be safely installed and operated at several brownfield sites that may not meet the more stringent zoning requirements for conventional NPPs.

Advantages of SMRs:

  • Safer and efficient: SMRs are designed with a smaller core damage frequency (the likelihood that an accident will damage the nuclear fuel) and source term (a measure of radioactive contamination) compared to conventional NPPs.
    • They also include enhanced seismic isolation for more safety.
  • Simpler and lower risk of radioactive release: SMR designs are also simpler than those of conventional NPPs and include several passive safety features, resulting in a lower potential for the uncontrolled release of radioactive materials into the environment.
  • Economical: They could provide a pathway for developing economies to promote sustainable growth with a low capital outlay.
  • Flexible: SMRs can be integrated with Renewable Energy to fulfill the need for flexibility, producing energy services and low-carbon co-products.
  • SMRs are adaptable and scalable.
  • Compact design (requires less land space)

How nuclear reactors can lead to sustainable energy generation?

  • Accelerating the deployment of SMRs under appropriate international safeguards, by implementing a coal-to-nuclear transition at existing thermal power-plant sites, will take India closer to net-zero and improve energy security because uranium resources are not as concentrated as reserves of critical minerals.
  • Most land-based SMR designs require low-enriched uranium, which can be supplied by all countries that possess uranium mines and facilities for such enrichment if the recipient facility is operating according to international standards.
  • Further, serial manufacture of SMRs can reduce costs by simplifying plant design to facilitate more efficient regulatory approvals and experiential learning with serial manufacturing.

How the world is supporting new nuclear power?

  • The world is seeing growing support for nuclear, with political commitments over the coming decade including plans for hundreds of new reactors around the world.
  • Five of the world’s largest economies – the US, India, the UK, Japan and China – have announced targets to substantially increase nuclear capacity.

Way forward:

The nuclear power industry has significant potential for achieving global decarbonization goals. India, too, seeks to enhance its nuclear energy share to meet energy needs and security objectives. However, handling nuclear projects requires meticulous planning due to the unique regulatory environment, demanding careful coordination among stakeholders.

Verifying, please be patient.

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