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IAEA Launches Workshop Series on Economics of Emerging and Existing Reactor Technologies


Artistic rendering of a data centre powered by advanced nuclear reactors, providing extremely reliable, consistent energy. (Image: Third Way)

The IAEA has launched a series of virtual workshops on economic aspects associated with different generations of nuclear power reactors as the need for climate change mitigation and sustainable development drives growing global interest in small modular reactors (SMRs) and other emerging reactor technologies.

Many countries are looking at either expanding their nuclear power reactor fleet, replacing part of it or building their first plants for low carbon, dispatchable energy to meet rising demand for electricity and heat. As technologies such as SMRs and microreactors (MRs) attract interest, the IAEA is helping countries to identify and implement new approaches for building advanced reactors for a sustainable and net-zero emissions future.

The IAEA kicked off the virtual workshop series this month with an event focused on the economics of two types of technologies: advanced or Generation III reactors currently being built and SMRs and MRs, currently mostly in the research and development phase, and aimed at generating electricity as well as producing process heat, hydrogen and other services to provide stability and resilience to evolving electricity grids.

SMRs, with electrical power up to 300 MW per module, have specific design, safety and siting features, with a wide range of applications. MRs, typically with a capacity of up to 20 MW, are factory-built SMRs that could be easily transported — by truck, ship or railcar — to provide reliable heat and power in remote areas and small power grids. In addition, SMRs and MRs can be used to provide stability and resilience to evolving power grids that rely increasingly on variable generation from renewables and a variety of energy storage systems.

Henri Paillere, head of the IAEA’s Planning and Economic Studies Section, noted that in its recently released Roadmap to Net Zero, the International Energy Agency sees nuclear electricity generation doubling in 30 years as part of one possible pathway to net zero. Net zero is the point where greenhouse gasses (GHG) emitted into the atmosphere are equal to the amount removed from the atmosphere, achieved by drastically reducing the use of fossil fuels while bolstering low carbon generation and GHG removal technologies, some of which don’t yet exist. But decarbonizing electricity will not be enough. “Emission reductions are also necessary in industrial, transportation and buildings sectors.  Nearly half of the reductions in CO2 emissions needed to get to net zero will come from technologies that are not yet deployed commercially, including SMRs and other advanced reactors,” Paillere said. “The technological readiness and economic competitiveness of these emerging technologies will be key factors for their deployment, and this is what the workshop series is addressing.”

Emerging reactor concepts like SMRs and MRs are among the most promising emerging technologies in nuclear power and have the potential to play a key role in the clean energy transition, particularly in contributing to the decarbonization of hard-to-abate sectors such as industry and heat. The role of MRs was also highlighted in a recent virtual dialogue between IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi and Ernest Moniz, the former United States Secretary of Energy. Recognizing the increasing global interest in SMRs, which are expected to become an option for flexible generation for a wide range of users and applications including in the developing world, the IAEA recently established a platform to provide integrated support to Member States on all aspects of their development, deployment and oversight.

Saied Dardour, an IAEA energy economist, said the workshop addresses two audiences. “The first is project developers who rely on standard financial appraisals and focus on returns to shareholders,” he said. “The second is public sector decision-makers who take a broader view to include benefits and costs to society, accounting for all resources used by the project, and gauge the value the project generates to society at large.”

Participants discussed a broad range of topics, including cost drivers, economics of serial production, integration with renewables, and financing. It was noted that while SMRs may be at a cost disadvantage per electricity produced due to size when compared to the electricity production of large reactors, four economic drivers compensate for this in driving costs down: simplified design, modularization and factory assembly, standardization and regulatory harmonization.

The workshop also included a session on the economics of advanced reactors in future energy systems, followed by a panel discussion on the role emerging reactor concepts can play in evolving electricity grids. Speakers elaborated on the link between advanced reactor designs and their economics, and the challenges related to their integration with renewables, including through the generation of process heat or the production of hydrogen.

Meeting participants, from both nuclear newcomer countries and established nuclear power countries, shared perspectives and provided country-specific examples and case studies. Keynote speakers, with direct experience in designing, planning and implementing nuclear power projects, highlighted their own perspective, challenges and lessons learned.

“We have more work to do to advance these emerging technologies for a successful and sustained deployment, to address global climate change challenges which will require decarbonizing multiple industries, and to meet countries sustainable development goals,” said Michelle Scott, Senior Advisor at the US Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy.

The workshop took place from 2 to 4 June and was attended by over 150 representatives of nuclear power organisations, and economic and financial institutions from countries developing or considering new concepts of nuclear power plants, including SMRs and MRs. The next workshop in the series, scheduled for December 6-8, 2021, will address the economics of currently operating nuclear power plants.

Peaceful Uses Initiative

This virtual workshop series is funded using Peaceful Uses Initiative (PUI) funding from the United States. Since 2010, extrabudgetary contributions made through PUI have been used to support a wide variety of IAEA activities aimed at promoting broad development goals in Member States. This project aims to develop practical guidance and a reference framework to help interested Member States develop more effective nuclear power plant project management capability—with a focus on schedule and budget control.

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