NICOSIA, Cyprus — A global search for alternative sources to Russian energy during the war in Ukraine has refocused attention on smaller, easier-to-build nuclear power stations, which proponents say could provide a cheaper, more efficient alternative to older-model mega-plants.
U.K.-based Rolls-Royce SMR says its small modular reactors, or SMRs, are much cheaper and quicker to get running than standard plants, delivering the kind of energy security that many nations are seeking. France already relies on nuclear power for most of its electricity, and Germany has kept the option of reactivating two nuclear plants it will shut down at the end of the year as Russia cuts natural gas supplies.
While Rolls-Royce SMR and its competitors have signed deals with countries from Britain to Poland to start building the stations, they are many years away from operating and cannot solve the energy crisis now hitting Europe. Nuclear power also poses risks, including disposing of highly radioactive waste and keeping that technology out of the hands of rogue countries or nefarious groups that may pursue a nuclear weapons program.
Those risks have been accentuated following the shelling around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, which has raised fears of potential nuclear disaster.
In the wake of the war, however, “the reliance on gas imports and Russian energy sources has focused people’s minds on energy security,” Rolls-Royce SMR spokesman Dan Gould said.
A small modular reactor’s components can be built in a factory, moved to a site in tractor trailers and assembled there, making the technology more attractive to frugal buyers, he said.
“It’s like building Lego,” Gould said. “Building on a smaller scale reduces risks and makes it a more investible project.”
Some small modular reactors are essentially pressurized water reactors identical to some 400 reactors worldwide, while other designs use sodium, lead, gas or salt as a coolant instead of water. The key advantages are their size — about one-tenth as big as a standard reactor — the ease of construction and the price tag.
The estimated cost of a Rolls-Royce small modular reactor is $2.5 billion to $3.2 billion, with an estimated construction time of 5½ years. That’s two years faster than it took to build a standard nuclear plant between 2016 and 2021, according to International Atomic Energy Agency statistics. Some estimates put the cost of building a 1,100-megawatt nuclear plant at between $6 billion and $9 billion.
Rolls-Royce aims to build its first stations in the U.K. within 5½ years, Gould said.
Similarly, Oregon-based NuScale Power signed agreements last year with two Polish companies — copper and silver producer KGHM and energy producer UNIMOT — to explore the possibility of building small modular reactors to power heavy industry. Poland wants to switch from polluting, coal-powered electricity generation.
Rolls-Royce SMR said last month that it signed a deal with Dutch development company ULC-Energy to look into setting up small modular reactors in the Netherlands.
Another partner is Turkey, where Russia is building the Akkuyu nuclear power plant on the southern coast. Environmentalists say the region is seismically active and could be a target for terrorists.
The introduction of “unproven” nuclear power technology in the form of small modular reactors doesn’t sit well with environmentalists, who argue that proliferation of small reactors will exacerbate the problem of how to dispose of highly radioactive nuclear waste.
“Unfortunately, Turkey is governed by an incompetent administration that has turned it into a ‘test bed’ for corporations,” said Koray Dogan Urbarli, a spokesman for Turkey’s Green Party.
“It is giving up the sovereignty of a certain region for at least 100 years for Russia to build a nuclear power plant. This incompetence and lobbying power make Turkey an easy target for SMRs,” Koray said.
Gould said one Rolls-Royce small modular reactor would generate nuclear waste the size of a “tennis court piled 1 meter high” throughout the plant’s 60-year lifetime.