Small modular reactor

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Small Modular Reactor.jpg
Nuclear reactor generating less than 500 MWe

Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are a type of nuclear fission reactor which are smaller than conventional reactors, and manufactured at a plant and brought to a site to be fully constructed. Modular reactors allow for less on-site construction, increased containment efficiency, and heightened nuclear materials security. SMRs have been considered to be less expensive than traditional nuclear reactors, although critics have questioned the cost benefits when compared to solar energy, wind energy, and natural gas.

Small reactors are defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency as those with an electricity output of less than 300 MW, although general opinion is that anything with an output of less than 500 MWe counts as a small reactor.[1][2]


Electricity was first generated from nuclear energy on December 20, 1951 in the high desert of south-eastern Idaho. The original electrical output was estimated at 45 kW.[3] Since then, reactors have grown much larger, with electrical outputs of over 1,400 MW.[4] Almost 50 years after the first nuclear energy was generated, applications for reactors with low electrical outputs are being introduced again.

According to a report prepared by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the long-term goal of nuclear power is to "develop an economic, safe, environmentally acceptable, unlimited supply of energy for society."[5]

Many of these smaller reactor designs are being made "modular" – in other words, they will be manufactured and assembled at a central factory location. They are then sent to their new location where they can be installed with very little difficulty. These SMRs are particularly useful in remote locations where there is usually a deficiency of trained workers and a higher cost of shipping. Containment is more efficient, and proliferation concerns are lessened.[6] SMRs are also more flexible in that they do not necessarily need to be hooked into a large power grid, and can generally be attached to other modules to provide increased power supplies if necessary.

There may be some economic benefits to SMRs as well. While the small power output of an SMR means that electricity will cost more per MW than it would from a larger reactor, the initial cost of building the plant is much less than that of constructing a much more complex, non-modular, large nuclear plant. It makes an SMR a smaller-risk venture for power companies than other nuclear power plants.[7]

SMRs produce anywhere from ten to 300 megawatts, rather than the 1,000 megawatts produced by a typical reactor. Safety features include a natural cooling feature that can continue to function in the absence of external power; which was precisely the problem that was faced in Japan when the 2011 tsunami hit. The SMR also has the advantage of having underground placement of the reactors and spent-fuel storage pools, which provides more security. Smaller reactors would be easier to upgrade quickly, require a permanent workforce, and have better quality controls, just to name a few more advantages.[8]

Potential uses

SMRs could be used to power significant users of energy, such as large vessels or production facilities (e.g. water treatment/purification, or mines). Remote locations often have difficulty finding economically efficient, reliable energy sources. Small nuclear reactors have been considered as solutions to many energy problems in these hard-to-reach places. Cogeneration options have been presented in journals.[9]

Proposed sites

United Kingdom

In 2016 it was reported that the United Kingdom Government was assessing sites for deploying SMRs in Wales - including the former Trawsfynydd nuclear power station - and on the site of former nuclear or coal-fired power stations in Northern England. Existing nuclear sites including Bradwell, Hartlepool, Heysham, Oldbury, Sizewell, Sellafield and Wylfa are thought to be possibilities.[10]

United States

The Tennessee Valley Authority announced it will be submitting an Early Site Permit Application (ESPA) to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in May 2016 for potentially siting an SMR at its Clinch River Site in Tennessee. This ESPA would be valid for up to 20 years, and addresses site safety, environmental protection and emergency preparedness associated. TVA has not made a technology selection so this ESPA would be applicable for any of the light-water reactor SMR designs under development in the United States.[11]

The Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) announced a teaming partnership with Energy Northwest to explore siting a NuScale Power reactor in Idaho, possibly on the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory.[12]

The Galena Nuclear Power Plant in Galena, Alaska was a proposed micro nuclear reactor installation intended to reduce the costs and environmental pollution required to power the town. It was a potential deployment for the Toshiba 4S reactor.


There are a variety of different types of SMR. Some are simplified versions of current reactors, others involve entirely new technologies.[13]

Fission and reactivity control

Nuclear power plants generate heat through nuclear fission. When an unstable nucleus (such as Template:Chem) absorbs an extra neutron, the atom will split, releasing large quantities of energy in the form of heat and radiation. The split atom will also release neutrons, which can then be absorbed by other unstable nuclei, causing a chain reaction. A sustained fission chain is necessary to generate nuclear power.

There are certain conditions that must be met for this chain reaction to occur. Certain fuel densities are necessary, or the neutrons won't impact a sufficient number of other unstable atoms before escaping the reactor. It is also easier for unstable nuclei to absorb neutrons when the neutrons are traveling at a certain speed. For Template:Chem, slower neutrons are more likely to cause a fission reaction. In order to slow down the neutrons in a reactor core, a moderator is used. Water is the most common moderator in use today. The neutrons are slowed down as they travel through the water. As the reaction speeds up and the temperature of the reactor increases, increasing the temperature of the moderator, the neutrons aren’t slowed down as effectively. This in turn reduces the rate of nuclear reactions inside the core, since the faster neutrons aren’t as easy to absorb. This effect, the negative temperature coefficient, makes the reactor inherently resistant to "excursion", or a sudden, uncontrolled increase in temperature.[14]

Some SMRs are "fast reactors" – they don’t use moderators to slow down the neutrons. The fuel requirements in this kind of reactor are a little different. The atoms have to absorb neutrons travelling at higher speeds. This usually means changing the fuel arrangement within the core, or using different fuel types. Template:Chem is more likely to absorb a high-speed neutron than Template:Chem. However, the same negative temperature coefficient comes into play with fast nuclear reactors. Once the core heats up too much and the neutrons start to move faster, even the elements that would usually be able to absorb neutrons have trouble capturing them. Fission slows, and the reactor cannot run out of control.[15]

Another benefit of these fast reactors is that some of them are breeder reactors. As these reactors produce energy, they also let off enough neutrons to transmute non-fissionable elements into fissionable ones. A very common use for a breeder reactor is to surround the core in a "blanket" of Template:Chem, which is the most easily found isotope of uranium. Once the Template:Chem undergoes a neutron absorption reaction, it becomes Template:Chem, which can be removed from the reactor once it is time to refuel, and used as more fuel once it has been cleaned.[16]


Currently, most reactors use water as a coolant. Light water (Template:Chem) is more common than heavy water (Template:Chem). New reactor designs are experimenting with different coolant types. Liquid metal reactors have been used both in the U.S. and other countries for some time. Gas-cooled reactors and Molten salt reactors are also being looked at as an option for very high temperature operation.[17][18]

Thermal/electrical generation

Traditionally, nuclear reactors use a coolant loop to heat water into steam, and use that steam to run turbines to generate electricity. There are some of the new gas-cooled reactor designs that are meant to drive a gas-powered turbine, rather than using a secondary water system. Also, there are some plants now that are used for their ability to generate thermal, rather than electric, energy. Nuclear reactor heat can be used in hydrogen production and myriad commercial operations.[17] Right now some of the possible nuclear heat applications include water desalination, heat for the production of petroleum products (extracting oil from tar sands, creating synthetic oil from coal, etc.), and the production of hydrogen for use in anything from car batteries to nitrogen fertilizers.[19]


The electricity needs in remote locations are usually small and highly variable.[20] Large nuclear power plants are generally rather inflexible in their power generation capabilities. SMRs have a load-following design so that when electricity demands are low they will produce a lower amount of electricity.

Many SMRs are designed to use new fuel ideas that allow for higher burnup rates and longer lifecycles. Longer refueling intervals can decrease proliferation risks and lower chances of radiation escaping containment. For reactors in remote areas, accessibility can be troublesome, so longer fuel life can be very helpful.

Because of the lack of trained personnel available in remote areas, SMRs have to be inherently safe. Many larger plants have active safety features that require "intelligent input", or human controls. Many of these SMRs are being made using passive or inherent safety features. Passive safety features are engineered, but do not require outside input to work. A pressure release valve may have a spring that can be pushed back when the pressure gets too high. Inherent safety features require no engineered moving parts to work. They only depend on physical laws.[21]

Safety features

Since there are several different ideas for SMRs, there are many different safety features that can be involved. Coolant systems can use natural circulation – convection – so there are no pumps, no moving parts that could break down, and they keep removing decay heat after the reactor shuts down, so that the core doesn’t overheat and melt. Negative temperature coefficients in the moderators and the fuels keep the fission reactions under control, causing the fission reactions to slow down as temperature increases.[22]


Several SMR developers are claiming that their designs will require fewer staff members to run the reactors because of the increased inherent and passive safety systems. Some of the reactors, like the Toshiba 4S, are reportedly designed to run with little supervision.[23]

Easier load following

Nuclear power plants have been historically deployed to cover the base load of the electricity demand.[24] Nowadays some nuclear power plants might perform daily load cycling operation (i.e. load following) between 50% and 100% of their rated power. With respect to the insertion of control rods or comparable action to reduce the nuclear power generation, a more efficient alternative might be the “Load Following by Cogeneration”, i.e. diverting the excess of power, respect to the electricity demand, to an auxiliary system. A suitable cogeneration system needs:

  1. to have a demand of electricity and/or heat in the region of 500 MWe–1.5 GWt;
  2. to meet a significant market demand;
  3. to have access to adequate input to process;
  4. to be flexible: cogeneration might operate at full load during the night when the request of electricity is low, and be turned off during the daytime.

From the economic standpoint, it is essential that the investment in the auxiliary system is profitable. District heating, desalination and hydrogen have been proposed as technically and economically feasible options.[25] SMR can be ideal to do load following being used for desalination over the night. [26]

Waste reduction

Many SMRs are fast reactors that are designed to have higher fuel burnup rates, reducing the amount of waste produced. At higher neutron energy more fission products can be usually tolerated. As mentioned before, some SMRs are also breeder reactors, which not only "burn" fuels like Template:Chem, but will also convert fissionable materials like Template:Chem (which occurs naturally at a much higher concentration than Template:Chem) into usable fuels.[16]

Some reactors are designed to run on alternative thorium fuel cycle, which offers significantly reduced long-term waste radiotoxicity compared to uranium cycle.[27]

There has been some interest in the concept of a traveling wave reactor, a new type of breeder reactor that uses the fuel it breeds. The idea would eliminate the need to remove the spent fuel and "clean" it before reusing any newly bred fuel.[28]


The use of nuclear materials to create weapons is always a concern. Many SMRs are designed to lessen the danger of materials being stolen or misplaced. Nuclear reactor fuel is low-enriched uranium, or has a concentration of less than 20% Template:Chem. This low quantity, non-weapons-grade uranium makes the fuel less desirable for weapons production. Once the fuel has been irradiated, the fission products mixed with the fissile materials are highly radioactive and require special handling to remove safely, another non-proliferation feature.

As SMRs have lower generation capacity and are physically small, they are intended to be deployed in many more locations than existing nuclear plants. This is both at more sites in existing nuclear power states, such as old fossil fuel generation plants, and in more countries that previously did not have nuclear plants. It is also intended that SMR sites have much lower staffing levels than current nuclear plants. Because of the increased number of sites, with fewer staff, physical protection and security becomes an increased challenge which could increase proliferation risks.[29][30]

Some SMR designs are intended to have lifetime cores so the SMRs do not need refuelling. This improves proliferation resistance by not requiring any on-site nuclear fuel handling. But it also means that there will be large inventories of fissile material within the SMRs to sustain a long lifetime, which could make it a more attractive proliferation target. A 200 MWe 30-year core life light water SMR could contain about 2.5 tonnes of plutonium toward the end of its working life.[30]

Light-water reactors designed to run on the thorium fuel cycle offer increased proliferation resistance compared to conventional uranium cycle, though molten salt reactors have a substantial risk.[31][32]

The modular construction of SMRs is another useful feature. Because the reactor core is often constructed completely inside a central manufacturing facility, fewer people have access to the fuel before and after irradiation.

Reactor designs

There are numerous new reactor designs being generated all over the world. A small selection of the current SMR designs is listed below.

Lisr of small nuclear reactor designs[33]
Name Gross power (MWe) Type Producer Status
4S 10–50 FNR Toshiba, Japan Detailed Design
ABV-6 6–9 PWR OKBM Afrikantov, Russia Detailed Design
ANGSTREM[34] 6 LFR OKB Gidropress, Russia Conceptual Design
mPower 195 PWR Babcock & Wilcox, USA Basic Design
(Cancelled March 2017)
BREST-OD-300[35] 300 LFR Atomenergoprom, Russia Detailed Design
CAREM 27–30 PWR CNEA & INVAP, Argentina Under Construction
EGP-6 11 RBMK IPPE & Teploelektroproekt Design, Russia Operating
(not actively marketed due to legacy design, will be taken out of operation permanently in 2019)
ELENA[lower-alpha 1] 0.068 PWR Kurchatov Institute, Russia Conceptual Design
Flexblue 160 PWR Areva TA / DCNS group, France Conceptual Design
Fuji MSR 200 MSR International Thorium Molten Salt Forum (ITMSF), Japan Conceptual Design(?)
GT-MHR 285 HTGR OKBM Afrikantov, Russia Conceptual Design Completed
G4M 25 LFR Gen4 Energy, USA Conceptual Design
IMSR400 185–192 MSR Terrestrial Energy, Inc.,[38] Canada Conceptual Design
IRIS 335 PWR Westinghouse-led, international Basic Design
KLT-40S 35 PWR OKBM Afrikantov, Russia Under Construction
MHR-100 25–87 HTGR OKBM Afrikantov, Russia Conceptual Design
MHR-T[lower-alpha 2] 4х205.5 HTGR OKBM Afrikantov, Russia Conceptual Design
MRX 30–100 PWR JAERI, Japan Conceptual Design
NP-300 100–300 PWR Areva TA, France Conceptual Design
NuScale 45–50 LWR NuScale Power LLC, USA Licensing Stage
PBMR-400 165 HTGR Eskom, South Africa, et al. Detailed Design
RITM-200 50 PWR OKBM Afrikantov, Russia Under Construction
SMART 100 PWR KAERI, S. Korea Licensed
SMR-160 160 PWR Holtec International, USA Conceptual Design
SVBR-100[39][40] 100 LFR OKB Gidropress, Russia Detailed Design
SSR 37.5x8 MSR Moltex Energy LLP,[41] UK Conceptual Design
S-PRISM 311 FBR GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy Detailed Design
TerraPower 10 TWR Intellectual Ventures - Bellevue, WA USA Conceptual Design
U-Battery 4 PBR U-Battery consortium,[lower-alpha 3] UK Conceptual Design[42]
VBER-300 325 PWR OKBM Afrikantov, Russia Licensing Stage
VK-300 250 BWR Atomstroyexport, Russia Detailed Design
VVER-300 300 BWR OKB Gidropress, Russia Conceptual Design
Westinghouse SMR 225 PWR Westinghouse Electric Company, USA Preliminary Design Completed
Xe-100 35 HTGR X-energy,[43] USA Conceptual design development
Updated as of 2014. Some reactors are not included in IAEA Report. Not all IAEA reactors are listed yet.
  1. If completed, ELENA would be the smallest commercial nuclear reactor ever built.[36][37]
  2. Multi-unit complex based on the GT-MHR reactor design, designed primarily for hydrogen production.
  3. Urenco Group, Atkins, Amec Foster Wheeler, Laing O'Rourke, Cammell Laird, Nuclear AMRC

Disadvantages and issues


A key driver of SMRs are the alleged improved economies of scale, compared to larger reactors, that stem from the ability to prefabricate them in a manufacturing plant/factory. A key disadvantage, however, is that these improved economics can only be realised if the factory is built in the first place, and this is likely to require initial orders for an 40-70 units, which some experts think unlikely.[44]


A major barrier is the licensing process, historically developed for large reactors, preventing the simple deployment of several identical units in different countries.[45] In particular the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission process for licensing has focused mainly on large commercial reactors. The design and safety specifications, staffing requirements and licensing fees have all been geared toward reactors with an electrical output of more than 700MWe.[46]

Licensing for SMRs has been an ongoing discussion. There was a workshop in October 2009 about licensing difficulties and another in June 2010, with a US congressional hearing in May 2010. With growing worries about climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, added to problems with hydrocarbon supplies from foreign countries and accidents like the BP oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, many US government agencies are working to push the development of different licensing for SMRs.[47]

Other disadvantages

SMRs themselves do not necessarily combat all of the key criticisms levelled at nuclear power generally, for instance the environmental effects of nuclear power and indeed a greater number of sites could exacerbate another - nuclear proliferation.


Related Document

TitleTypePublication dateAuthor(s)Description
Document:The Theresa May government's nuclear obsession is a betrayal of democracyArticle19 December 2017Oliver TickellSo here's the key question: how can a government that has declared in its election manifesto its commitment to delivering the lowest cost power in Europe, and its utter impartiality in deciding between any one power generation technology over any other, justify an obsessively pro-nuclear energy policy that could land every household in Britain with a £12,600 nuclear tax?


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