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International Collaboration Key to Effective Microreactor Development, Deployment


Former United States Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi discussed opportunities and challenges of microreactors in a virtual dialogue today. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

International collaboration is vital in developing and deploying new nuclear power technologies, such as small modular reactors (SMRs) including microreactors (MRs), and the IAEA is the natural place for this collaboration to take place, said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi and former United States Energy Secretary Moniz at a panel discussion today.

Mr Grossi and Mr Moniz, Co-Chair and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and Founding CEO of the Energy Futures Initiative, convened for a virtual dialogue about the potential and role of MRs, discussing opportunities and challenges, as well as the compatibility and integration of MRs with other clean energy sources. “To have any possibility of success in reaching something like net zero goals, we need a decade of supercharged innovation across low-carbon technologies,” Mr Moniz said. In terms of MRs, there are important applications and the important role of the IAEA is multifaceted in advancing those applications and in working early on to look as issues, like security and non-proliferation, he added.

What are microreactors?

Designed to generate electrical power typically up to 10 MW(e), MRs are a category of SMRs. SMRs are defined as advanced reactors that produce electricity typically up to 300 MW(e) per module and are aimed to address energy demand by adding incremental capacity. SMRs are modular, in which systems and components can be factory-assembled and shipped to a location, reducing capital costs and construction time.

MRs, which have smaller footprints than other SMRs, will be well suited for regions inaccessible to clean, reliable, resilient and affordable energy, including remote areas where large electricity grids are not in place or delivery of fossil fuels is cumbersome. “There is a very interesting niche for microreactors […] clearly very focused, very effective at addressing with laser precision, problems that would otherwise be more complicated or less climate efficiently solved with other technologies,” Mr Grossi explained. MRs are designed for high operational performance and reliability and enhanced transportability, while also being economically competitive. Furthermore, MRs could serve as a backup power supply in emergency situations or replace power generators that are often fuelled by diesel, for example, in rural communities or remote businesses.

More than a dozen MRs – from heat-pipe cooled reactors to high temperature gas cooled reactors and liquid metal cooled fast reactors – are under development in several countries, including Canada, the Czech Republic, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. In the US and Canada, “we count about 14 technologies being developed for microreactors,” Mr Moniz said. “A lot of this has been funded in the private sector, but now we are seeing tremendous interest, as well, from the Department of Energy in the United States and the equivalent authorities in Canada, where there is strong interest in addressing issues, like Arctic applications for communities and mining.”

Mr Grossi said the Agency’s International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO) is currently studying Transportable Nuclear Modules (TNMs), of which an MR could be one. The study includes a scenario of a TNM that is factory manufactured, fuelled and sealed, and where the supplier state performs all major activities, from manufacturing and fuelling to relocation, operation and decommissioning. Mr Grossi said the draft conclusions of this ongoing study show that such a scenario would require a clear inter-governmental agreement between the parties and be consistent with all international nuclear regulatory and legal obligations.

IAEA at centre of collaboration

The IAEA fosters innovation by providing a global platform to share information, support technology development and deployment, coordinate research projects and produce technical publications. This week, for instance, the IAEA, under the framework of its SMR project, virtually hosted the Technical Meeting on the Status, Design Features, Technology Challenges and Deployment Models of Microreactors. The meeting united experts from 13 countries, the European Commission and the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. “We are trying to play a double role – the role of advisor and, at the same time, we must care for a very water-tight system of safety and security,” Mr Grossi said. Safety and security “go hand in hand, and by addressing these issues early on, we can assimilate them.”

Considering MRs, the IAEA recently launched a project to investigate the coordinated use of nuclear power and renewables in hybrid energy systems. Last year, the IAEA also initiated a project on the economic appraisal of SMR projects, including MRs, to evaluate business models and consider potential end-users and revenue streams. "Early deployment in North America will likely happen through public-private partnerships. Reactors will be produced in factories and shipped to locations of use. This can lead to a major cost reduction and increased economic competitiveness," Mr Moniz explained.

The IAEA’s safety standards, security guidance and safeguards are pillars that underpin the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear energy. In response to requests from countries and international organizations, the IAEA is developing an Agency-wide platform on SMRs, inclusive of MRs, to coordinate support related to all aspects of SMR development, deployment, oversight and their electric and non-electric applications, such as use in district heating and desalination systems. The Agency is also conducting a review of the applicability of IAEA Safety Standards to new advanced reactors, including MRs. “The IAEA will try to play an even more active role. We are everybody’s hub in nuclear. We will provide for technologists, regulators, practitioners, conceptualizers to come together,” Mr Grossi said.

Read more about the IAEA’s role in the efficient and safe use of nuclear power.

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