Small Modular Reactors: a new approach to generating nuclear energy

Small Modular Reactors: a new approach to generating nuclear energy

12 December 2018
infrastructures innovation Nuclear NuclearEnergy SmallModularReactors SMR
Read the article

Quicker to build, smaller and more modular, SMRs are an answer to the need for low- or medium-output zero-carbon energy generation in locations that can, at times, be remote. Reliability and safety obviously remain imperatives, but modularity, flexibility, ease-of-build and digitalisation are also avenues that engineers are exploring in their quest for innovative systems that can offer the best solutions for the future.

SMR – three letters that symbolise the new face of nuclear energy. In Europe, nuclear power plants are generally synonymous with large reactors that have outputs of up to 1,600 MW; but in other parts of the world, a large number of SMR projects are under way. There are two main reasons for the growing popularity of SMRs:

  • The construction costs of “large” power plants are high and commissioning lead-times long. The capital outlay for this type of plant is therefore significant, which restricts the number of plants that can be built. SMRs – whose costs and lead-times can be much lower – enable more players to invest in the generation of nuclear energy.
  • SMRs are particularly advantageous for countries with energy needs in remote areas but where a conventional high-power reactor would not be suitable.

S for simplicity, M for modularity and “mass-production” and R for return on experience

As SMRs have a lower energy output, their architecture is more straightforward than conventional reactors and they could be built using standardised, mass-produced components and systems. This means that they have the potential for shorter construction times and could be less costly to build due to the economies of scale achieved from their mass production.

In addition, as seen in other industrial sectors (such as aeronautics and ship-building), this type of modular design means that the reactor can be split into sub-assemblies that are manufactured and then tested in-factory. As the modules are easily transportable, by road, rail or sea, they can then be rapidly assembled on site.

At Assystem, we have studied the design of condensers in turbine halls by separating them into several modules. This design provides the additional benefit of simplifying maintenance operations as one of the modules can be replaced if it breaks down rather than having to replace the whole condenser. It also results in optimising inventories of spare parts.

Experts in the field agree that the first commercialised SMRs will use PWR technology (Pressurised Water Reactors) so as to leverage the return on experience available from the many reactors that are already based on this technology. For example, it is the case for both EDF in France and Rolls Royce in the UK. These solutions not only simplify the construction of the reactors but also make it easier to incorporate passive safety systems and provide a significant period of grace in the event of an accident.

Making the most of digital solutions

SMRs are an ideal opportunity for putting to use digital solutions such as Building Information Modelling (BIM), which has already been used for constructing complex infrastructure such as Doha airport. Until only recently, digital solutions were hardly used in the design of reactors whereas today we can develop 5D models. The first three dimensions are obviously spatial. The fourth is the time factor – thanks to new technologies we can even simulate the delivery lead-time of a reactor. And the fifth dimension is the financial factor which enables the project’s overall cost to be controlled. All of these parameters mean that we can now anticipate potentially critical moments in each project and therefore more effectively meet investors’ expectations and ward off future problems. For instance, by using digital technologies, we can detect in advance if there is an interface problem between two pieces of equipment and therefore avoid overruns both in terms of costs and deadlines.

These technologies can also create a digital twin of a reactor which is then used to optimise maintenance and refurbishment work as well to prepare for decommissioning when the time comes.

Energy production: an issue for the planet

The ecological potential of SMRs could also be very useful for boosting the image of nuclear power. Because as well as generating electricity, SMRs (PWR technology) could be employed for other purposes such as supplying heat (cogeneration), desalinating seawater or producing hydrogen.

It is also possible to design multi-SMR plants, and because the output of one or more units can be modulated in just a few minutes they can be integrated into a smart grid in order to offset the impact of intermittent supply from renewables without emitting any CO2 (unlike gas power plants).

If we want to commit to no longer producing diesel vehicles by 2040 and meet the undertakings of the Paris climate change agreements by keeping the global temperature rise to beneath 2°C, we need to aggressively pursue energy transition and move towards zero-carbon electricity. SMRs are an excellent backstop for ensuring that by 2030 we will be in a position to switch to clean energy production while being able to meet the higher energy demands that come with rising population numbers.

With the same aim of producing more eco-friendly electricity, SMRs can be used in developing countries which don’t have the electricity grids or consumer demand for higher-level production. SMRs can replace coal or gas-fired power plants to generate zero-carbon electricity.

A further step towards international standardisation

Another advantage of SMRs, especially in relation to the standardised components used in their design, is that it will be easier to introduce a universal set of safety rules applicable worldwide. When a plane takes off from London and lands in Rio de Janeiro, it has to comply with the same aviation regulations throughout the flight, as the aeronautical sector has put in place standardised international rules.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has set up numerous technical thinktanks to address this issue as, for example, UK regulations on fire safety are stricter than those in France. It is high time for everyone to be subject to the same rules.

Such standardisation is important for making the industry simpler – without affecting safety of course –so that SMRs can be developed cost efficiently.

In sum, therefore, SMRs are an excellent opportunity for Assystem to continue to build its skills in the nuclear sector by identifying and creating innovations that will contribute to making the sector more competitive. So, let’s get creative and inventive and draw inspiration from other industrial sectors, such as aerospace, in order to make the dream of new-generation nuclear energy reactors come true.

Share :


Something to say ?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Eric Devingt

External contributor

Nicholas Morris

Project Engineer Assystem

Our vacancies

Learn more

Related articles

Being a woman architect in Saudi Arabia

Fatimah AlQaisoum and Batool Al Mualem are both working as architectural designers at Assystem Radicon, Saudi Arabia. As such, they participate in commercial, residential and even governmental project...

BIM: a building revolution

Innovation of digital technology; Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology is a revolutionary new solution for building stakeholders that improves building construction and job quality while low...

M.a.DI – The house in a box

More than half of the world’s population now live in cities and the proportion is set to increase in coming years. This has many different consequences, not least of which is the fact that it takes yo...

Smart cities: stop or more?

54% of our planet’s inhabitants currently live in towns or cities and by 2030, two thirds of the world’s population will be urban dwellers. This rising demography is proving a real test of...

BRCK - Internet is everywhere

In today’s society, we take it for granted that we will have an Internet connection and would have difficulty living without it. Connection is the basis of communication and communication is progress....

Oasis Eco Resort - Dubai finally wakes up to ecology ?

2017 was the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, but what did it change? Several initiatives were launched, for example by Air France which announced the creation of a dedicated...

e-Tree Sologic - The 2.0 Tree

The Sologic e-Tree is an outstanding example of engineering inventiveness! The engineers working at Sologic, an Israeli start-up, looked to nature for inspiration in creating a local energy and connec...

Being an engineer in Tours: "a historic setting for large-scale projects"

Large-scale projects in the nuclear and defense sectors are multiplying in Tours thanks to the many partners present in the region. A perfect opportunity to discover the city known as “Little Pa...

Being an engineer in Cherbourg: "a real feeling of freedom".

The first is working on a major nuclear project, the second on naval defence project engineering. Alexis Turcan and Jérôme Lecolazet have both chosen the Cotentin region to live and work. Seduced by t...

10 good reasons to go and work in the Cotentin region

Just a few hours from Paris, the Cotentin region is renowned for its idyllic living environment, as well as the dynamism of its industries, particularly in the nuclear and defence sectors. Here are 10...

Before moving abroad, you have to know your host environment well

Since May 2019 Assystem has been supporting Uzbekistan in its energy transition thanks to the implementation of the country’s new energy mix (new production infrastructures, transport networks a...

"Working on the construction site of a nuclear power plant and living a five-minute walk from the sea"

As an expatriate in Turkey, Alexia Sergeant is involved in the ambitious nuclear programme of Akkuyu. Beyond the professional challenge, this young engineer shares a real love for a country rich in cu...

"I'm in the right place"

Italian by birth, Paolo Minelli has joined the Assystem team in France last February. His role: managing the data-scientist team and contributing to improve the performance of the group’s projec...

"I've been offered the opportunity to move on to several positions"

Between France and the UK, Nicholas Morris is currently experiencing the daily challenge of developing Assystem’s business around the British EPR project, Hinkley Point C. “FascinatingR...

Will we still need engineers in the future?

The question is not as strange as it might seem. Given the phenomenal growth of digital technology, robotics and artificial intelligence, where does this leave the engineers of tomorrow? How will they...

No, I'm not a superhero

For ordinary people, when we talk about engineers, is the image of Steve Job, inventor of the first Macintosh and founder of a now trillionaire company, or Elon Musk, imagining alone the car new gener...