What sectors of the future to bet on? For which technologies must France be at the forefront? This is the stake of the France 2030 plan, presented by Emmanuel Macron this Tuesday morning. The Head of State will announce “a clear, precise and dated costing”. According to estimates, it should involve around thirty billion euros over five years, spread over ten technologies serving the ecological transition. In the batch, hydrogen, semiconductors, artificial intelligence, low carbon aircraft …
But also, most certainly, the Small modular reactors (SMR), these pocket nuclear reactors. The rumor has become insistent in recent days “and has not been denied by the government”, notes Valérie Faudon, general delegate of the French Nuclear Energy Society, a pro-nuclear association. France could invest around a hundred million euros in these SMRs, according to Nicolas Nace, “energy transition” campaign manager at Greenpeace. They would be added to the 50 million euros of the recovery plan announced in September 2020 and already allocated to research and development (R & D) around these small modular reactors.
What are these SMRs? What are their advantages? Their disadvantages? 20 minutes make the point.
Just smaller reactors?
This is the main difference between SMRs and conventional reactors. The power of the latter is between 900 MWe and 1,700 MWe for third generation reactors, such as the EPR still under construction in Flamanville (Manche). “That of SMR oscillates between 50 and 250 MW”, indicates Jean-Michel Ruggieri, head of the SMR program at the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique (CEA). Weaker powers which make it possible to consider smaller footprints. “It is one of the interests to develop SMR, indicates in any case Jean-Michel Ruggieri. The idea is that they don’t take up more space than a coal-fired power plant, which they might have to replace. “
Although they are pocket-sized, SMRs do not necessarily require the development of new nuclear technologies. They use those already used for reactors of “conventional” size, in particular those called third generation, boiling water or pressurized water (used in France).
However, Jean-Michel Ruggieri does not present these pocket reactors as simple reproductions of their “big brothers”. “This change of scale requires a lot of thought, design work, in the same way that you don’t build a tiny house like a large villa,” he explains.
Where are we today on SMR?
There is already one in operation. In May 2020, Russia commissioned a floating nuclear power plant, consisting of two 35 MW pressurized water reactors integrated into a ship, the Akademik Lomonosov. It is installed near the port city of Pevek in the East Siberian Sea, and will supply electricity to this city of 5,000 souls as well as the surrounding mining and oil industry.
The others are still at the project stage. The International Atomic Energy Agency counts 70 of them. The Americans of Nuscale, but also China, with the APC100, have already made good progress on their SMR. In France, a consortium led by EDF and in which the CEA is participating is working on the Nuward project, a 170 MW pressurized water reactor, which will be associated in pairs. “We are in the phase of the first design of the reactor and its components, and of the choice of safety options that will then have to be presented to the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) towards the end of 2022”, indicates Jean-Michel Ruggieri. The start of construction is expected in early 2030.
Late, suddenly, France? “On time,” retorts Jean-Michel Ruggieri. The important thing is to be ready for 2030, when we think there will be a real market for SMR. “
What is the advantage of SMR?
“The first is to be able to be mass-produced, that is to say, manufactured and assembled in a dedicated factory before being sent to the installation site,” begins Valérie Faudon. What to significantly reduce the cost. “Their lower power also makes it possible to install them on existing electrical networks without having to resize them, an advantage over conventional nuclear reactors,” adds Jean-Michel Ruggieri. We are thus broadening the range of solutions in the hands of States to decarbonize their energies. In some cases, building SMRs will make more sense in a country to replace coal-fired power plants than building an EPR. These small reactors can also be considered for the power supply of isolated sites. This is the idea of the Akademik Lomonosov in Siberia.
“But more and more, we are thinking of new uses of nuclear energy than the production of electricity,” continues Valérie Faudon. It is the desalination of seawater, an important issue in many countries, the production of hydrogen, the supply of heat for the district heating network or for industrial processes. Again, SMRs may be the most appropriate format for these new applications. Including on French territory.
Are SMRs safer than conventional reactors?
The question does not arise thus, for Jean-Michel Ruggieri. “The nuclear safety authorities, in France as elsewhere, are asking reactors to achieve the same levels of safety regardless of their size, in order to be able to be put into service,” he explains. On the other hand, because of their lower power, SMRs will be able to achieve this level of safety with simplified safety systems. “They could use, for example,” passive safety systems “, which are based on physical phenomena, functioning naturally on their own, such as convection, gravity or resistance to high temperatures, illustrates Jean-Michel Ruggieri. For those with higher powers, we need pumps to remove the heat from a damaged reactor, which must themselves be supplied with electricity by emergency generators … “
There are all the same downsides with SMR, points out Nicolas Nace to Greenpeace. “They do not resolve the issue of nuclear waste at all,” he slips already. It also raises the question of the scattering of nuclear sites. “The economic model of these small mass-produced reactors precisely requires that a lot of them be installed, including in countries which had not previously used nuclear energy,” he recalls. The question then is whether we will succeed in controlling them all. Perhaps an accident on an SMR will be less serious, the quantity of fuel used being less important, but the probability of it occurring higher. “
Rather than betting on SMR, Nicolas Nace invites us to accelerate the deployment of renewable energies, “a mature technology that takes less time to develop and which can also replace coal or gas power plants”. “This is also what France 2030 provides, which is far from being limited to nuclear power, nor for that matter to energy,” we promise the Ministry of Ecological Transition.