A new generation of advanced, prefab nuclear power reactors called small modular reactors (SMRs) could be licensed and hit the market as early as 2020, and the IAEA is helping regulators prepare for their debut. In a series of workshops that began earlier this year, the IAEA is working closely with regulators on approaches to safety and licensing ahead of potential SMR deployment worldwide.
Safety requirements, guidelines and licensing procedures for SMRs were among the topics that participants from the Arab Atomic Energy Agency (AAEA) and the Arab Network of Nuclear Regulators learnt about during an IAEA workshop held in Vienna in January 2016.
“Small modular reactors are a very attractive proposition for the Arab world as more than half the countries in our region don’t have the resources to build large, traditional nuclear power plants. SMRs are more feasible, manageable and require lower investment — it is a very realistic option for Arab countries to consider,” said Abdelmajid Mahjoub, Director General of the AAEA and the Chairman of the workshop.
Co-sponsored by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the workshop brought together regulatory bodies, operator companies, and other governmental organizations, working or expected to work towards the establishment of national safety and technical infrastructures for SMRs.
Workshop participants received detailed information about the role of regulatory bodies and licensing requirements, including the approval of SMR designs, siting and operations. The IAEA facilitated discussions among regulators on the use of relevant IAEA safety standards and on changes that may be needed in national regulations.
Small and safe
Designed to be modular using prefabricated modules, SMRs, with an output of less than 300 MW, will have shorter construction times and are expected to be cost-competitive to build. Four SMRs in three countries are already under construction. “Though smaller, the safety and security measures for this next generation of nuclear power reactors are no different from the international obligations that present-day reactors are subject to,” said Stewart Magruder, a senior nuclear safety officer at the IAEA.
The global safety and security standards that are applicable to existing nuclear power reactors as well as those under construction are mostly applicable to SMRs, too. “We need to establish a set of clear and pragmatic requirements for safety and licensing,” said Greg Rzentkowski, Director of the Division of Nuclear Installation Safety at the IAEA. “Regulatory certainty is essential for successful deployment of SMRs.”
The IAEA will coordinate additional work in this area in coming years. This is likely to include the development of an overarching safety objective and a guidance document on establishing relevant requirements in accordance with the facility type and size, Rzentkowski said.
Develop, assess and deploy
These prefabricated nuclear reactor modules can be shipped to specific destination points, much like transporting a manufactured component from one industrial park to another. The potential benefits to countries and end users resulting from the commercial operation of SMRs are immense — for example, by providing much needed electricity to remote regions, thereby enhancing the dynamics of worldwide energy supply.
The development of SMRs began nearly two decades ago and several countries are independently engaged in deploying prototypes. The IAEA has observed a significant increase in Member State participation in SMR technology development that reflects the vast potential seen in the deployment of such reactors with regard to expanding national electricity grids, and improving energy supply security.
The IAEA is also drawing up a technology roadmap for SMR deployment and conducting a study on SMR deployment indicators in developing countries to assist Member States in developing, assessing or deploying SMRs.
“In Arab countries with a smaller grid system, SMRs are a step to establish a network of reactors within a country alongside the grid development and growing energy demand,” Mahjoub said. SMRs are designed to require less manpower and a much shorter time for implementation. In the Arab region, only Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco have large enough grid systems to take advantage of SMRs. At the same time, many other Arab countries are interested in SMRs for the dual purpose of electricity generation and seawater desalination, he added.
There are around 50 SMR designs under development for various purposes and applications, and four reactors under construction: CAREM-25, an industrial prototype in Argentina; KLT-40S and RITM-200, floating SMRs in the Russian Federation; and HTR-PM (‘High Temperature Reactor–Pebble-Bed Module’), an industrial demonstration plant in China. Last year, the Saudi Arabian national atomic energy authority signed an agreement with the Republic of Korea to build an SMR called SMART (‘System-integrated Modular Advanced Reactor’) in Saudi Arabia. Even traditional fossil fuel producers are now looking at the potential which SMRs offer to provide a more diversified energy supply to national and regional electric grids.
“SMRs are among the most advanced reactor technologies for meeting future energy demands, and Member States need to be fully aware of the applicable safety standards and regulations to enable successful deployment of this new type of power reactor,” said Hadid Subki, a nuclear engineer at the IAEA Nuclear Power Technology Development Section.
The next IAEA workshop on the safety and licensing requirements for SMRs is for members of the Forum of Nuclear Regulatory Bodies in Africa and will take place in June 2016.
We need to establish a set of clear and pragmatic requirements for safety and licensing. Regulatory certainty is essential for successful deployment of SMRs.