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IAEA Launches Project to Help Countries Assess Viability of SMRs for Climate Action

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The IAEA recently commenced a two-year regional project, "Assessing the Role of Low Carbon Energy Technologies for Climate Change Mitigation", to assist countries in energy planning as well as determining the role of SMRs in helping them meet their climate targets. 

Climate change is a complex challenge requiring collective action that is urgent and innovative in equal measure. As countries review the options available to them for decarbonizing their energy and industrial sectors, small modular reactors (SMRs) are emerging as an attractive and flexible option for low carbon electricity and heat generation.

The IAEA recently commenced a two-year regional project[1] to assist countries in energy planning as well as determining the role of SMRs in helping them meet their climate targets. The project, part of the IAEA’s technical cooperation programme in Europe and Central Asia, involves 25 countries.

While Russia recently deployed an SMR, wider deployment of this technology is expected to begin over the next decade, with around 50 design concepts under development. SMR components will be prefabricated before assembly on site, which is expected to reduce construction times compared to large reactors. With output of no more than 300 MW(e) per unit, SMRs will also require less upfront capital and lower financing costs. Capacity can be scaled by adding units, which may be well suited for non-electric applications such as district heating.

“Low carbon energy systems often include a lot of variable renewable energy sources (VREs) such as wind and solar, and these need to be balanced by dispatchable low carbon sources if the climate targets are to be met,” said Frederik Reitsma, IAEA Team Leader for SMR Technology Development. “Flexible and reliable energy sources will need to be a central component of future low carbon energy systems, and SMRs may be ideal for this purpose.”

The project will include workshops, panels and training courses on a variety of relevant topics, including potential SMR applications, infrastructure and logistics issues and the impact of renewable capacity on energy security supplies.

That’s of interest to Ukraine. Seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around one third compared with 1990s levels by 2050, Ukraine plans to increase the role of renewables in electricity production while decreasing nuclear power’s share, currently at 53%.

“New nuclear capacities based on flexible SMR technologies may be ideal for integration with renewable energy sources,” said Oleksandr Pecherytsia, Deputy Director at Ukraine’s State Scientific and Technical Center for Nuclear and Radiation Safety. Project activities on regulatory and licensing issues will help determine the best way to move forward in this area, he added.

Estonia, which currently uses oil to cover 70% of its energy needs, is also looking at SMRs. The European Union member must meet ambitious EU climate targets for 2030, which include boosting the share of renewables to at least 32% of electricity production. EU members must establish an integrated national energy and climate plan (NECP) for the period from 2021 to 2030 and report on the progress every two years.

“Although Estonia is not planning to use SMRs to meet the NECP 2030 targets, we are analyzing whether it would be feasible to add SMRs into our energy mix beyond 2035,” said Getlyn Denks, Head of the Estonian Ministry of Environment’s Department of Climate. “Ensuring that any potential deployment of SMRs is done safely is a high priority for us, and we will need assistance in capacity building and the drafting of legislation as we consider this option for the future.”

The Czech Republic currently generates 35% of its electricity from nuclear power and is looking to replace around 2200 MW of non-nuclear energy sources with new nuclear capacity. The government has reviewed potential options from SMR vendors and is also working on its own SMR design called the Energy Well. Activities related to the large-scale deployment of SMRs for electricity as well as district heating will be very useful, said Marek Ruscak, Head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and the Energy Well development project at the research organization Centrum vyzkumu Rez (CVR).

“Energy production is a significant emission contributor, and nuclear power is the only stable source of low carbon energy available,” Ruscak said. “As SMRs have a more affordable financial profile than large reactors and have a lower risk of deployment delays, there is a significant economic incentive as compared with conventional nuclear reactors.”

Project activities will focus on training national energy specialists on how to use IAEA tools and other models to evaluate and assess energy technologies. These results can then be used to assist in the development of their energy and climate strategies. Other topics to be addressed will include the role of SMRs in hybrid energy systems that integrate nuclear power and renewables and their potential role in future energy markets.

Participating Member States will also have the opportunity to develop country-specific case studies for in-depth analyses of energy technologies, such as conducting a socio-economic evaluation of a potential SMR deployment scenario.

“This project is designed to help countries understand and independently apply models that assess energy technologies in their specific national context,” said Christoph Henrich, the IAEA Programme Management Officer in charge of the project. “Only then these countries can take knowledgeable decisions on how to shape their future optimal low-carbon energy mix, while considering other important factors, such as environmental constraints or energy security.”

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[1] RER2017 - Assessing the Role of Low Carbon Energy Technologies for Climate Change Mitigation

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