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Cairo seminar: Status and Prospects for SMRs

A smaller, brighter energy future?

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Electricity plants are getting smaller, energy needs bigger, environmental pressures higher. An IAEA international seminar in Egypt reviewed the changing global picture for nuclear power.

At a time when a third of the world's population has no access to electricity, nuclear power is getting a closer look in developing and industrialized countries alike. In a real sense, the future looks smaller -- and perhaps a bit brighter -- than it has in a long time. Energy policies are changing to adapt to more competitive market conditions, new scientific studies are raising concerns over global warming, and technological advances are driving the size, shape, and projected costs of tomorrow's energy systems.

At an IAEA seminar in Cairo, Egypt, held 27 - 31 May 2001, the focus was on "SMRs"-- short for small- and medium nuclear reactors that are anywhere from one-tenth to one-half the size of most nuclear plants operating today. Their technical features and versatility are attracting interest in many countries, especially in the developing world where energy needs are acute and rising fast in rapidly growing urban areas.

"SMRs are receiving greater consideration to meet changing market requirements,"IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei noted in his opening address. "An estimated two billion people still lack access to electricity, and dramatic increases in demand are expected over the next several decades." SMRs could find a niche in many countries for economic, environmental, and safety reasons.

China's HTR-10 is being utilized to evaluate a wide range of nuclear power applications including electricity production, steam and district heat generation, and high temperature industrial processes.  (Credit: Institute of Nuclear Energy Technology)

Mr. ElBaradei was among keynote speakers addressing the seminar. It was organized jointly by the IAEA, Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Nuclear Association (WNA), and hosted by the Nuclear Power Plants Authority of Egypt. The meeting has attracted more than 150 energy policymakers, plant managers, designers, builders, and suppliers from 38 countries. The forum's sessions covered technical, economic, environmental, and social aspects of SMR development in the context of global energy challenges.

Egypt's Minister for Electricity and Energy, Dr. Ali F. El Saiedi, in hailing the seminar as the first of its kind in the region, said countries like his own face "enormous pressure" on energy supply. "If we want to alleviate poverty, we must work together to build the climate for investment that will create jobs, provide sustainable growth, and help develop and deploy advanced energy technologies," he said. Egypt is among countries that are particularly interested in SMRs as an electricity source and for water desalination plants, which are highly energy intensive facilities.

SMRs are not new to the nuclear scene, or to programmes of the IAEA, NEA and other organizations where related activities date back to the 1960s. While some SMRs are operating worldwide, most of today's nuclear-generated electricity is produced by large units in the range of 1000-megawatts or higher, which were built in the 1970s primarily in industrialized countries when different market conditions applied.

"SMRs merit a fresh look today mainly because economic conditions have changed, electricity markets are being deregulated, and technological developments on advanced designs are dynamic,"said Luis Echavarri, the NEA's Director General. Between 20 and 30 different SMR designs are in stages of research and development in developing and industrialized countries. The countries include Argentina, China, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, Russia, Canada, United States, and South Africa. While many SMR designs are not targeted for commercial markets in the near future, some types whose development is further along and have short construction times could be deployed earlier given favourable demand.

One fundamental challenge for SMRs is economic competitiveness with other sources of energy supply, which will be a "moving target", said Mr. P.E. Juhn, Director of the IAEA's Division of Nuclear Power. Not all the variables are known yet as energy markets and SMR designs evolve.

Another key to the future lies in global cooperation, which up to now has characterized SMR development. The IAEA has initiated an International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycle Concepts, called INPRO, to promote collaboration and leverage research funding. Other cooperative efforts include the USA's "Generation IV International Forum" focusing on advanced nuclear plant designs and development. Nuclear cooperation also is being more widely promoted by WNA, formerly known as the Uranium Institute, said its Director General John B. Ritch III, as it reaches out to companies, institutes, and professional societies beyond its core membership in largely industrialized countries.

"Clearly at some point in the development of a technology, collaboration gives way to commercial competition,"said IAEA Director General El Baradei. "However, even after these technologies become competitive, collaboration will continue to be beneficial for new designs with enhanced features."