The new nuclear option: small, safe and cheap
The next generation of nuclear reactors – the ones that could finally overcome Australia’s resistance to power by fission – are so small they will abide by road regulations.
Rolls-Royce is designing a reactor that will be 4.5m wide to fit under the 4.95m British road height limit. They would be built in a factory and transported to customers by truck or barge.
In the industry they are known as small modular reactors, or SMRs. They may be the most exciting development in the field since August 3, 1958, when the nuclear-powered USS Nautilus became the first sea vessel to reach the North Pole.
As the developed world tries to work out how to power their economies without contributing to global warming – some 75 per cent of Australian electricity came from coal in 2017 – nuclear power is making a comeback among experts after the backlash triggered by Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan eight years ago.
In Australia, political and public sentiment towards nuclear could be shifted by a parliamentary inquiry initiated by Energy Minister Angus Taylor last week into nuclear as a power source.
“We always approach these things with an open mind,” Taylor said last month.
The inquiry has been specifically told to consider if the new generation of small reactors might be suitable for Australia, which is among the four OECD nations that don’t use nuclear power. The others are Iceland, which relies on geothermal energy, New Zealand, which has abundant supplies of hydro and thermal energy, and Israel, which is frequently attacked by missiles.
None are in operation yet, but there are some 150 designs under way around the world, including in Russia, China, Britain and the US. Although the technologies vary, they share a common goal: to design super-safe and relatively cheap sources of electricity.
“So many of them would be made that it would be like building a jet engine in a factory,” says Ashley Brinson, the executive director of the Warren Centre, an engineering think tank at the University of Sydney. “You could put it on the back of a truck or fit it into a standard shipping container.”
The small reactors are a radical shift from conventional nuclear power plants, which are very big, and very expensive. European and North American plants are designed to provide electricity to huge populations and exploit costs of scale.
The new generation of reactors could produce as little as 4 megawatts of electricity, enough to run 100,000 lightbulbs simultaneously.
Most, though, are planned to be more powerful. Rolls-Royce, a big maker of jet engines, is designing a model that would produce 400 to 450 megawatts of energy, or about half the output of the Loy Yang B brown coal power station in the La Trobe Valley in Victoria. Owned by Alinta, Loy Yang B generates about 17 per cent of Victoria’s electricity.
Power doesn’t require size. The Loy Yang plants and a coal mine spread across 6000 hectares, which is about 20 times the size of Centennial and Moore parks in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. The Rolls-Royce reactor would be 11.3m by 4.5m and the total plant about the size of a small office park, according to an illustration published by the British company.
Utilising a pressurised water reactor – the same basic technology in the Nautilus – nuclear fission would be used to split atoms, releasing energy into water. The super-hot radioactive water would then be piped into tubes running through non-radioactive water, which would turn into steam and drive a turbine that runs an electricity generator.
The plant would be encased in what Rolls-Royce calls a “hazard shield” and protected from tsunamis or aircraft by an earthen berm.
Rolls-Royce estimates that Australian demand for small reactors could reach 2000 megawatts of capacity, which is more than Canada, Mexico or south-east Asia. For one of its reactors to begin operation in 2030, though, the company wants the British government to allocate 7 gigawatts of electricity demand to small reactors, which is about 10 per cent of Britain’s total capacity.
Other projects are further developed. Canada’s Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp says it plans to start selling very small reactors by 2025 for mines and remote towns. Several reactors, which would each fit in standard shipping containers, could be combined into a single power plant that would be operated by 15 to 30 people, the company says. The cost, based on the electricity generated, would be similar to solar panels 10 years ago, the company says.
“The [reactor] will follow a similar cost trajectory to renewables with costs becoming more competitive each year as manufacturing expenditures are reduced,” a spokesman says.
ARC Nuclear Canada, with the assistance of Sydney-based engineering group Worley Parsons, says it plans to start selling a small nuclear power plant in 2028.
The ARC-100’s big selling points would be simplicity and safety. The radioactive fuel would only have to be changed every 20 years. If it starts melting down, the reactor would automatically shut off without any human intervention. Most of the other reactors under development include similar so-called passive safety features.
Despite the notoriety of the disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, where a tsunami knocked out power to the reactor, triggering a nuclear core meltdown, nuclear power’s long-term safety record is strong.
A study commissioned two years after Fukushima by Friends of the Earth found that “overall the safety risks associated with nuclear power appear to be more in line with lifecycle impacts from renewable energy technologies, and significantly lower than for coal and natural gas per megawatt hour of supplied energy”. There were no deaths from radiation poisoning at Fukushima, although parts of the prefecture are now uninhabitable. (Friends of the Earth Australia says the study doesn’t reflect its current view.)
The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, which operates Australia’s one nuclear reactor, on Sydney’s western outskirts, has cited NASA research that nuclear power likely prevented over 1.8 million deaths between 1971 and 2009 by replacing coal and gas power plants.
Convincing Australians that nuclear power can be safe may be challenging. The politics of nuclear power are fraught. “Nuclear free zone” signs dot inner-city suburbs, and environmentalists and the Labor Party are adamantly opposed to ending the nuclear-power moratorium.
“The very idea of new nuclear plants is laughed at by those with a serious interest in the electricity industry and its future,” wrote the editor of the Renew Economy website, Giles Parkinson, last month.
Parkinson may have spoken too quickly. The chief economist of Industry Super Australia, Stephen Anthony, and former economics professor Alex Coram recently declared that nuclear power would likely have to eventually be adopted, and that opposition was based on irrational fears driven by rare accidents.
“Nuclear power is now the ugly duckling of the power generation industry,” they wrote in a discussion paper for superannuation funds that invest in power. “People somehow dismiss it as immoral, even more immoral than burning coal.”
Environmentalists say nuclear is more expensive that wind and solar power, an assertion nuclear advocates dispute.
The parliamentary inquiry into nuclear power will be a test for Australia’s newest, prominent climate campaigner, Zali Steggall, the member for Warringah on Sydney’s lower north shore.
Steggall, who is a member of the committee conducting the inquiry, didn’t want to pre-empt it by expressing a view towards nuclear power. The chairman of the committee, Queensland MP Ted O’Brien, said he had an open mind and wanted to focus on facts rather than “emotion and ideology”.
“It’s no secret that the Coalition is focused on affordability and reliability whilst also fulfilling our obligations to reduce emissions,” he said in an interview. “This inquiry is to assess nuclear energy and the prerequisites for future governments to consider introducing nuclear energy into the system.”
Coalition MPs are usually loyal to the government. If Taylor didn’t want to build the case for nuclear power, it is hard to see why he would have commissioned the inquiry.
In that case, it may be that the process is more important than the outcome. Get ready for a nuclear sales job.