Small modular nuclear reactors: how China and the US are poles apart in energy ambitions

Its construction is closely linked to the country’s larger power plants, and progress has been smooth, thanks to the experience and resources already amassed.

In early November, Linglong One announced a milestone: the completion of the reactor’s capsule-like steel safety shell.

It is in sharp contrast to the United States, where, also at the start of last month, a planned project to build a novel six-reactor, 462MW SMR by 2030 was terminated.


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Oregon-based NuScale Power has the only SMR design certified for use in the US. For its first project, the company was working with a group of Utah utilities at the Idaho National Laboratory, with the aim of generating enough electricity to power more than 300,000 homes. But it cancelled the project over a lack of user subscriptions and rising costs.

“It is too soon to tell if the NuScale project failure is just a temporary setback or a sign of a broader trend in the US,” said Jacopo Buongiorno, professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There are half a dozen other SMR projects in the making.”

Nevertheless, experts agree that the two projects reflect the differences in strategies, policy environments and conditions of SMR nuclear energy development in the two countries.

Despite its long standing as a nuclear powerhouse, the US is facing challenges in transforming what are great designs on paper into reality, even in the case of small reactors – whereas that is where China is showing its advantages.

SMRs usually have a power capacity under 300 megawatts electric per unit. More than 80 commercial SMR designs are being developed around the world, with various outputs and applications.

It is widely expected that in the post-2030 time frame, SMRs will gradually enter the market. Compared with large reactors, the advantages of small reactors is they are cheaper, simpler and more flexible. Thanks to their small, modular design, they are more affordable to build and are a better fit for smaller grids.

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As early as the 1970s and 1980s, due to nuclear accidents at some large-scale nuclear power plants abroad, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began advocating for the development of safe, reliable and economically feasible small and medium-sized reactors.

Nations including China and the US aspire to one day export SMRs.

“I believe that Linglong One will become a new name card for China’s nuclear power,” state-owned Science and Technology Daily quoted Song Danrong, chief designer of the project, as saying.

Due to the high upfront investment cost of large reactors, many developing countries struggle with the challenge of securing one-off financing for construction and they face additional constraints including geology, weather, cooling water sources, transport and grid capacity.

“There is thus a practical demand for SMRs in these places,” he said.

When it comes to nuclear capacity, China has 55 operating reactors and a capacity of over 53GW, which puts it in third place globally behind the US and France. But the nation is quickly catching up.

China has 21 nuclear reactors under construction, which will be able to generate 21.61GW of electricity. That is more than 2½ times more nuclear reactors under construction than any other nation, according to the IAEA.

Linglong One is at the vanguard of China’s nuclear energy industry. Photo: CCTV

Kevin Tu, a non-resident fellow at the Centre on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, said China was at the centre of global nuclear power.

“After the completion of the Daya Nuclear Plant, the first large-scale commercial nuclear power station in mainland China operational since 1994, China has invested heavily on advancing nuclear power technology, with significant inroads made on mechanical engineering, reactor design and equipment manufacturing,” Tu said.

With the rapid development of China’s nuclear power industry over the past three to four decades, “the entire industrial chain has been well-established”, said Zhao Chengkun, executive deputy director of the expert committee of the China Nuclear Energy Association, with around 90 per cent of equipment domestically produced.

Meanwhile, China has established a robust system for cultivating a stable pool of skilled personnel, with a significant demand for professionals in the nuclear power industry and related subjects in higher education, Zhao added.

“China is the de facto world leader in nuclear technology at the moment,” Buongiorno said.

In 2017, Bill Gates’ nuclear firm TerraPower and the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) signed an agreement to develop fourth-generation nuclear technology, though the plan was stranded amid US restrictions on technology deals with China.

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“We wish to further international cooperation and achieve technological breakthroughs by developing China’s advantage in rich resources in talent and using internet-based platforms,” China’s then-premier Li Keqiang said at the time.

An article published by CNNC in January said: “Hainan’s Changjiang region has developed into a mature nuclear power base that can provide a supportive and secure framework for small reactor construction. As a free trade port, Hainan will also facilitate greater convenience in exporting.”

And China is also taking a lead in future nuclear technology. On December 6, the world’s first commercial demonstration project of a fourth-generation nuclear power plant, the Rongcheng Shidaowan High-Temperature Gas-Cooled Reactor (HTGR) based in Shandong province, officially started commercial operation.

But America’s nuclear power journey is another story.

Several nuclear power accidents over the years, particularly Japan’s Fukushima nuclear crisis in 2011, have raised concerns in the country about the safety of this type of energy. Also, given the availability of ample natural resources including oil and gas, the construction of large-scale nuclear power plants in the US has stagnated.

Yet nuclear energy is now staging a comeback.

“Support for nuclear energy is currently very high in the US and globally,” Buongiorno said, saying this is mainly driven by concerns about climate change mitigation and energy security, with the latter especially sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The US and other nations have grown very concerned about the provision of reactors from Russia and China because a reactor project gives the exporting nation about a 100-year relationship with the importing nation.

Kenneth Luongo

The US is likely to need 200GW of new nuclear generation by 2050 to meet national decarbonisation targets, according to its Department of Energy (DOE). That is almost double its existing capacity.

Nuclear power is also geopolitically significant.

“The US and other nations have grown very concerned about the provision of reactors from Russia and China because a reactor project gives the exporting nation about a 100-year relationship with the importing nation,” said Kenneth Luongo, founder of the Partnership for Global Security, an energy policy non-profit.

Tu said: “In past decades, construction of greenfield nuclear power plants in Western countries, including the United States, has encountered various setbacks. From less than optimal reactor design to lack of equipment manufacturing capacity – as well as troublesome plant construction – project delays and cost spikes have become a common phenomenon, leading to high risks of conventional nuclear reactor development.”

Compared with renewable technologies with rapidly declining unit costs, the competitiveness of nuclear reactors has become increasingly questionable.

As a result, “both the investors and consumers are increasingly hesitant to bear its high costs”, Tu said.

An International Energy Agency report backed this up, saying that even though advanced economies were home to nearly 70 per cent of installed global nuclear capacity, they had lost market leadership. Recent nuclear power plant projects in Europe and the US had been hit by delays and cost overruns, it noted.

In the US, the NuScale Power small modular reactor project has been shelved due to high costs. Photo: Handout

Another more pressing issue in the US, from years of interruptions in nuclear power construction, is a shortage of qualified personnel.

In a 2022 blog post, the American Nuclear Society (ANS) CEO and executive director Craig Piercy said that as the nuclear industry expanded, sector heads were growing more concerned by a lack of workers.

To try to reignite its nuclear industry, the US is pinning much of its hopes on scaling up the market for simpler, less-expensive small modular and advanced reactor technology.

“In recent years, although the United States has permitted several new large-scale nuclear reactors, significant construction delay and major cost overruns have led to Westinghouse’s bankruptcy in 2017 as well as the subsequent cancellation of a project in South Carolina. SMRs are thus given even higher expectations,” Tu said.

The DOE has given NuScale and others about US$600 million since 2014 to support the commercialisation of small reactor technologies.

However, the cancellation of the NuScale project suggested that the vision of using SMRs to reignite the industry is not as easy to do.

In January, NuScale said the target price for power from the plant jumped 53 per cent to US$89 per megawatt-hour, raising concerns about customers’ willingness to pay.

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Read More:Small modular nuclear reactors: how China and the US are poles apart in energy ambitions

2023-12-09 14:00:12

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