Australia’s annual emissions from electricity generation for the year 2013 were 183 million tonnes CO2-equivalent as reported by the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory. As of 2019, and after billions of dollars spent on wind and solar, Australia’s annual emissions from electricity generation were 176 million tonnes CO2-equivalent. Research data from The Finkel Review shows that Australia has one of the world’s highest emission intensities, typically 820 kg CO2-equivalent/MWh. Minerals Council of Australia is advocating for the Government to consider the role of advanced nuclear technologies (ANTs) like small modular reactors (SMRs). Global Road Technology, poses the critical question: Are advanced nuclear technologies a solution to a lower emissions future? 

Countries with low emission intensities either have large hydro resources such as Norway or have nuclear as part of their energy mix with examples of France and Belgium. In this article, we discuss ANTs with emphasis on small modular reactors SMRs. 

What are advanced nuclear technologies?

ANTs encompass a wide range of nuclear reactor technologies under development. The technologies share common attributes:

  • Smaller than conventional nuclear power station reactors.
  • Designed so that much of the plant can be fabricated in a factory environment and transported to site, reducing construction risk and making them less capital-intensive.

Generally, ANTs fall into one of 2 groups:

  • Generation III water-cooled SMRs, like existing nuclear power station reactors but on a smaller scale.
  • Generation IV and beyond Advanced Modular Reactors (AMRs) which use novel cooling systems or fuels to offer new functionality such as industrial process heat and potentially a step change in reduction in costs. 

What are small modular reactors?

SMRs are a class of modern reactors that are essentially “small”, and each unit can be manufactured in a factory. Typical designs have power levels between 10 and 300 MWe. They are “modular” in the sense that each unit can be assembled next to another and scaled up or down to meet the local electricity needs. They are also designed to “plug in” to existing power networks and therefore can essentially replace aging power station with modern, reliable, and zero emissions power sources.

Are environmental regulations, health and safety concerns or potential profit loss a concern right now?

These are some of the advantages of SMRs:

  • Zero carbon emissions from power production.
  • 90% energy capacity.
  • Compact design (partly underground)
  • Fabricated in factory.
  • Construction takes 3 – 5 years.
  • Emergency planning zone with 2 km radius.
  • WalkAway safe with passive safety features.
  • $1-3 billion in cost 
  • Reduced waste 
  • Reduced fuel requirements with next generation technologies. 

Where can Australia put small nuclear reactors and what are the costs?

They can connect directly to the existing grid, be used to power regions or independently supply mines due to their compact size, fuel density and ability to air cool. SMRs will make the ultimate contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation, enabling Australia to reach net-zero emissions economy-wide. SMRs will improve the reliability and resilience of Australia’s electricity system by providing dispatchable generation, system inertia and frequency control. Robust estimates suggest that by 2030 and beyond, SMRs could offer power to grids from $64 – $77 MWh, depending on size and type. Modern SMRs are most likely to become the lowest system cost clean generation in Australia because of their high-capacity factor. The final cost of individual plants will depend on location-specific factors determined during feasibility studies.

Balancing off the conservative assumptions

Australia can realize its potential in becoming the top uranium producer in the world by utilizing this valuable resource for carbon-free electricity. SMRs bring local job creation and regional economic development especially in communities with retiring coal plants. Reliable, clean energy from SMRs will reduce emissions from industry and open the door to innovation, such as producing cheap, clean hydrogen. As the rest of the world drives towards more low-carbon power SMRs offer a shift towards intelligent power to meet Australia’s future energy demands. 

In Conclusion

To answer the initial question posed, 

ANTs are a solution to a lower emissions future.

With the repeal of Australia’s legislative ban on nuclear power, it will be feasible to build an SMR by 2030 and several gigawatts of nuclear by 2040. Although, in September 2020, the Australian government released the first Low Emissions Technology (LET) Statement, SMRs were included as a ‘watching brief technology’. Currently, the future development of nuclear power in Australia has been blocked by a moratorium that was put in place when there was no real appreciation of the contribution that modern, safe nuclear power plants could make to energy security, affordability and emissions reductions. SMRs could be Australia’s lowest cost 24/7 zero emission power source that underpins reliable and secure electricity supplies. 

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Advanced Nuclear Technologies. Retrieved 10/10/2.

Global development in small modular reactors. Retrieved 10/10/21. 

The Case for SMRs in Australia. Retrieved 10/10/21. 

What are small modular reactors and what makes them different? Retrieved 10/10/21.