Given Ireland’s emissions failure, should we consider small nuclear reactors?

Ireland is struggling to reduce its greenhouse gases, even while making great strides in harnessing wind power, so it is time to look at developing carbon-free nuclear power here, especially small, nuclear reactors (SMRs)? 

It’s a confusing picture. Ireland is a world leader in tapping its renewable wind resource, with about one quarter of our electricity now wind-generated, but it lies next to bottom of the EU table when it comes to carbon emissions.

The storage of energy generated from renewables is a problem engineers have yet to solve. So, when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine the only way to ensure base-load demand is met is to bridge the power gap by burning fossil fuels in dirty, carbon-emitting plants like Moneypoint Co Clare (coal), Edenderry Co Offaly (peat) and Huntstown Co Dublin (gas).

Ireland’s energy policy is focused on developing better ways to harness clean power from renewables and biomass. Yet, this approach is failing to produce enough energy to satisfy the nation’s power needs or electricity ‘baseload’; the daily minimum demand for power from the national grid.

SMRs 

“While renewables are useful – especially wind in Ireland and solar in brighter countries – they cannot, on their own, solve the growing energy and emissions problems,” argued Denis Duff, co-founder of voluntary pro-nuclear body, Better Environment with Nuclear Energy (BENE).

The NuScale power reactor building. NuScale is one of several nuclear engineering companies developing advanced small, modular nuclear reactors at locations around the world. Should Ireland consider adopting this technology? (Photo source: US Office of Nuclear Energy)

“Small, modular reactors are possibly the most important response by the energy and science communities to humanity’s increasing difficulty in guaranteeing a supply of clean affordable energy for the planet,” he added.

The EPAs ‘Greenhouse Gas Emissions Projections 2017-2035’ report suggests a new approach to deal with our emissions is urgently needed. The report predicts that carbon emissions from agriculture, transport and the burning of fossil fuels in power plants is set to increase over the period and that emissions reductions targets for 2020 and 2030 will not be met.

 

The idea of using small modular reactors (SMRs) to power small countries, communities or grids has been around for decades, but now some leading nuclear countries, including Canada and the US, are at the point where they have SMR projects working their way through the planning process.

These advanced SMRs are much smaller than the typical idea of a nuclear reactor plant, explained Norma O’Mahony, an Irish nuclear fuel engineer working on a new build nuclear plant with Horizon Nuclear Power in the UK.

“A lot of the nuclear plants that you are used to are on a very grand scale,” she explained. “They take a lot of concrete and they take a lot of resources to manage. In cohesion with that they also have very large cores so the safety issues are greater,” she added.

“They (SMRs) are modular, which means they can be put together in a factory and then rolled out wherever you want to build them. You can build them in a lot more places, but also save a lot on construction costs,” she added.

One, or perhaps two SMRs, built on the site of existing fossil-fuel burning power plants, where they could link with the grid, would provide Ireland with enough carbon-free energy for its needs, and remove our reliance on imports of fossil fuels from politically unstable countries, said Denis Duff.

“We could immediately close our dirtiest power stations on a like-for-like basis,” said Denis Duff. “We could start with the coal and peat stations, which are the dirtiest in Ireland, and then replace the gas stations, which emit half as much as coal,” he added.

Challenge

The claims that SMRs are safer than existing nuclear reactors, that the waste they produce is not a major safety concern, and that they can produce plenty of reliable, cheap electricity is challenged by some.

“There is no evidence that SMRs as a class will be safer than larger reactors,” said Dr Edwin Lyman, a physicist and spokesperson for the Washington DC-based Union of Concerned Scientists.

“SMR designers, in an attempt to cut capital and operating costs, are proposing exemptions from safety and security standards that could render SMRs even more of a threat to public health, safety and the environment than larger reactors,” said Dr Lyman.

“Because of economies of scale, SMRs will generate more expensive electricity than larger reactors, which in turn are not competitive with many renewable sources. And reliability is something that needs to be demonstrated with actual operating experience,” Dr Lyman added.

Global

The USA, Canada, UK, Russia and Argentina all have SMRs proposals working their way through the planning and approval processes. Canada has gone as far as producing a policy road-map for SMR deployment which they believe could bring clean energy to their many small remote communities.

There are about 50 SMRs at various stages of development globally according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Many are based on the ‘traditional’ pressurised water reactor (PWR) technology that has used in the majority of the world’s nuclear power plants since these type of reactors were first adopted by the US Nuclear Power Programme in 1954.

The PWR design involves pumping water under high pressure to the reactor core where it is heated by energy released from the fission, or the ripping apart of atoms. The heated water flows to a steam generator, and from there the steam flows to turbines which then spin an electricity generator.

The US Department of Energy has said that it expects that an SMR developed by NuScale Power, which is based on a PWR design should be operational by 2025. NuScale is also looking to develop SMRs in the UK, while Canada wants to develop SMRs for its remote northern communities.

TerraPower, a US nuclear reactor design company founded by Bill Gates and linked with the China National Nuclear Corporation is developing is a travelling water reactor type of SMR. This is at concept stage, but could, theoretically, run for decades without refueling or removing its waste.

Hurdles

Before SMRs could be considered in Ireland, the law would have to change. The Electricity Regulation Act 1999 prohibits ‘the use of nuclear fission for the generation of electricity’ and the 2006 Planning and Development Act, similarly outlaws the generation of electricity from nuclear fission.

The Government has said it will publish a climate plan by the end of March, but nuclear power won’t feature in the plan. “Nuclear power generation in Ireland is currently prohibited by legislation,” confirmed a spokesperson for The Department of Communications, Climate Action & Environment.

Given the political and legal obstacles, it would be many years before an SMR could be built here even if these hurdles were overcome, admits BENE’s Denis Duff.

“It would take around 10 years to set up the infrastructure required before we could build and operate our first nuclear power station,” predicted Denis Duff.

“The SMR’s themselves will take three to four years to build – while this will not help us meet our 2020 or 2030 emissions reduction targets, they will be necessary if we are to have any realistic chance of meeting our targets for 2040 and 2050,” he added.

 

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