In 2021 alone, And while some sources of carbon-free generation are necessarily intermittent,
While there has been no corresponding federal legislative action establishing national carbon policy, Additionally, But, complicating matters, some predictive modeling of energy demand shows a tripling of global energy power consumption by 2050,
Advanced nuclear energy, which encompasses a range of exciting technologies, offers one potential solution as part of a diversified energy portfolio for achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Traditional nuclear technologies generate power using light-water nuclear reactors to split atoms, heat water, and create steam.These new advanced reactors vary in size and output; some are microreactors, a subset of small nuclear reactors (1–20 megawatts generating capacity),
One advanced nuclear technology that has received significant attention of late is small modular reactors (SMRs).In this article, we explore this promising technology in four parts. First, we discuss the principal benefits and challenges of SMRs, both practically and from a regulatory perspective, as part of a broader diversified-energy portfolio. Second, we examine as a case study Virginia, which is particularly focused on making SMRs a key part of that state’s energy portfolio. Third, we briefly discuss other states that are similarly prioritizing further SMR research and development as a matter of public policy, which holds much promise for the future of the technology across the United States. Finally, we outline further steps to expedite SMR development and implementation.
The Benefits and Challenges of SMRs in a Diversified Energy Portfolio
Like traditional nuclear power generation, Unlike traditional nuclear power generation, SMRs promise lower costs, more flexibility in construction, For example, as the name indicates, The modular component of the name is in reference to the fact that SMRs are capable of being produced off-site and later transported to a location for installation, In addition to the flexibility offered by their size and assembly, They employ safety systems comparable in reliability to those associated with traditional nuclear reactors,
Below, we discuss several of these key features in more detail.
SMRs can also be placed in areas not spacious enough to develop solar or wind-powered generation, SMRs are keenly situated to help address these concerns because their comparatively modest generating capacity and size The SMRs’ smaller footprint and modularity also mean that they can be placed in a wide variety of sites, In many cases,
Because SMRs can also be prefabricated, allowing them to be manufactured and then shipped and installed on-site,The flexibility of SMRs is particularly evident with respect to microreactors, that is, Additionally, the streamlined nature of SMR construction signals the potential of SMRs for incremental deployment—
In some cases, The smaller core size also means smaller evacuation zones and Because the plants are modular, The greater efficiency, as well as less frequent refueling commensurate with their size,
Reduced Carbon Future
Because SMRs generate electricity using nuclear fission, Relatedly, Because their power generation is adjustable, Accordingly, SMRs provide increased reliability and, more importantly,
In part, this potential stems from lower initial construction costs and shorter timelines, However,
According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, SMR spent fuel contains relatively high concentrations of fissile nuclides; thus, However, in a study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, the conclusion was that the waste attributes of SMRs, In short, there is no unified viewpoint on whether SMRs ultimately produce more or less waste than traditional light-water nuclear reactors. And, in any event, any concerns about the waste per energy unit generated by SMRs may be resolved in the near future as the industry continues to turn its attention to SMR waste-management solutions.
Virginia as a Case Study
When considering the multitude of benefit SMRs can provide to a well-organized diversified-energy portfolio,Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s proposed October 2022 state energy plan favors a diversified, “all of the above” approach to energy that Youngkin’s plan also emphasizes the importance of
As part of the plan’s goal of increasing access to nuclear energy,In furtherance of this goal, Youngkin proposed allocating $10 million in the 2023 budget to create the As discussed below, Proponents of the plan highlight the clean, flexible, and cost-effective advantages of SMRs.
Indeed, a subsidiary of Dominion Energy, Inc., one of the nation’s largest producers and transporters of energy, currently operates two nuclear facilities in Virginia, Based on the presence of these companies and the infrastructure that they provide, Just last year,
Most recently, Virginia laid further groundwork for SMRs in the commonwealth during the General Assembly’s 2023 legislative session, passing three new bills into law. First, House Bill 2386 created the aforementioned Virginia Power Innovation Fund,Second, House Bill 1779 and Senate Bill 1464 established the Nuclear Education Grant Fund and Program, Third, House Bill 1781 expanded the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority’s powers to, among other things, allow it to promote and support energy development projects, promote energy workforce development,
The technology is developing, meaning initial Accordingly, additional legislative and/or regulatory support—similar to Virginia’s extensive legislative and regulatory support for solar photovoltaics, offshore wind, onshore wind, and energy storage—
Other States Supporting SMR Development
- In 2020,
- In 2021,
- In 2022,
- In 2022,
- In 2023, These plants will provide up to 30 megawatts of clean electric power and more than 50 megawatts of clean heating, with opportunities to expand.
Furthermore, In a more overt step by the federal government supporting SMR development, If accepted, it would be only
Further Steps to Expedite SMR Development and Implementation
The future of SMRs is undoubtedly bright; however, there remain significant state and federal regulatory hurdles—such as NRC certification of newer SMR technologies—that SMR developers and stakeholders must address before the burgeoning technology can realize its full potential. With that said, there are a number of approaches regulators can take advantage of in order to help expedite the development and implementation of SMRs throughout the United States.
First and foremost, efforts must be undertaken to promote education and knowledge sharing among SMR developers, regulators, and the communities within which SMRs are intended to be implemented. Creating a more educated populace will galvanize support for expedited growth, hastening the certification process by minimizing public opposition. One way to further such educational efforts would be for the federal government to promote the demonstration of SMR ability to power federal facilities, which could help spur demand and smooth the adoption of this technology for use in public and private applications nationwide. In addition, regulators could partner with environmental and clean energy advocates to help educate local communities and legislators about the benefits of this versatile, clean, and cost-effective technology.
Second, engagement between regulators and SMR developers should be promoted in order to encourage consistent communication and to streamline compliance efforts. One way to further this goal would be for regulators to regularly visit SMR research and development facilities. Such visits not only would ensure consistent communication between researchers and regulators but also would allow developers to tailor their designs to best comply with evolving regulatory approaches. Ultimately, once a product is finalized under this collaborative process, regulators could expeditiously test and approve new technologies—thereby accelerating the implementation of safe SMRs. Understanding that regulators currently have limited capacity to accommodate such a program on a large scale, Congress, in turn, could provide additional funding and statutory authority to expedite the SMR testing and approval process in this way.
Third, legislators and agencies can support increased funding for research into and development of emerging technologies generally, which will make SMRs more efficient; safer; and, ultimately, easier to permit and construct.
Finally, state and federal legislators can help spur the advancement of SMR technology by supporting legislation that will modernize the nuclear power regulatory regime while also incentivizing participation and investment in this area. An example of this is the ADVANCE Act, a bipartisan Senate proposal offsetting a portion of the costs of NRC review; establishing prizes for first developers going through the newly proposed framework; and requiring reports on NRC-related topics,
In summary, the considerable exploration of SMR alternatives at various levels of public and private organizations paints a clear picture, to varying degrees. As the nation continues its advance toward a carbon-free future, SMRs will likely serve a critical role in realizing that goal. All indications point to their importance becoming undeniable. Many of the examples discussed above are just initial steps along the path to SMR implementation. Significant changes in the next decade and beyond are likely, if not certain.