Context: The world still depends on fossil fuels for 82% of its energy supply. The recent uptick in coal consumption in Europe, despite the increase in solar and wind power, suggests that reliable, 24/7 low-carbon electricity resources are critical to ensure the deep decarbonisation of power generation, along with grid stability and energy security.
What are Small Modular Reactors (SMR)?
- 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. SMRs, which can produce a large amount of low-carbon electricity, are:
- 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.
What are the benefits of SMR?
- Due to smaller size, they can be sited on locations not suitable for larger nuclear power plants.
- They have relatively lower carbon footprint as they have lower fuel requirements.
- They are easy to manufacture, ship, transport and installed.
- They offer savings in cost and construction time.
- They can be deployed incrementally to match increasing energy demand. SMRs are designed to operate for 40-60 years with capacity factors exceeding 90%
- They can be installed into an existing grid or remotely off-grid.
- They are relatively safer as they operate on lower power and pressures and hence lower potential for the uncontrolled release of radioactive materials into the environment.
- They require no human intervention or external power or force to shut down systems.
Hence, an efficient regulatory regime comparable to that in the civil aviation sector – which has more stringent safety requirements – is important if SMRs are to play a meaningful role in decarbonising the power sector. This can be achieved if all countries that accept nuclear energy direct their respective regulators to cooperate amongst themselves and with the International Atomic Energy Agency to harmonise their regulatory requirements and expedite statutory approvals for SMRs based on standard, universal designs.
What steps should be taken in India?
- The Atomic Energy Act will need to be amended to allow the private sector to set up SMRs.
- To ensure safety, security, and safeguards, control of nuclear fuel and radioactive waste must continue to lie with the Government of India.
- The government will also have to enact a law to create an independent, empowered regulatory board with the expertise and capacity to oversee every stage of the nuclear power generation cycle, including design approval, site selection, construction, operations, certification of operators, and waste reprocessing.
- The security around SMRs must remain under government control, while the Nuclear Power Corporation can operate privately-owned SMRs during the hand-holding process.
- Indian government can negotiate with foreign suppliers to reprocess nuclear waste from all SMRs in a state-controlled facility under IAEA safeguards. The reprocessed material may also be suitable for use in other NPPs in India that use imported uranium. India can set up facility to reprocess spent fuel from SMRs.
- Finally, the Department of Atomic Energy must improve the public perception of nuclear power in India by better disseminating comprehensive environmental and public health data of the civilian reactors, which are operating under international safeguards, in India.