Russia’s floating SMR concept making waves

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Russia is literally pushing the boat out with small modular reactor (SMR) technology. Earlier this year, World Nuclear News reported on how Rosenergoatom, Russia’s state-owned manufacturer, had put two reactors onto a barge in Saint Petersburg after four years of testing.

The barge-based plant is intended to set sail for northeast Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula, in the East Siberian Sea, to serve mining interests close to the Arctic, according to reports.

But Russia, which is working on a number of SMR variants, clearly expects to be able to commercialise its floating designs abroad, too.

“The Russian business model, as I understand it, is that they will simply tow in a 40MWe unit, connect it to your drop line, and provide you with power for up to three years,” says Jay Harris, an SMR watcher with Bruce Power in Canada.

“They will either charge you a flat rate to provide the capacity and availability for the power, or use a per-kilowatt-hour fixed price model. When the unit requires service or refuelling, they tow in a new unit and disconnect the old one.”

Old reactors will return to a centralised service yard in Russia, he adds, so as well as having no upfront cost the electricity customer does not have to deal with spent fuel issues or even outages.

No decommissioning

“Costs are fixed and availability is known,” says Harris. “You don’t have to worry about finding financing, cost overruns, delays or finding labour. They do everything. You just pay them for the power you use, or the power available. Also, there is no decommissioning. They just tow the unit back.”

This plug-and-play, pay-as-you-go simplicity contrasts sharply with the situation in the world’s biggest SMR development market, the USA. There, plenty of companies are working on SMR technologies, but arguably few are finding the path towards commercialisation easy. But it is early days and as more competition comes into the DOE tender process, SMR developers will have to re-think the entire sales proposition to potential SMR-based electricity buyers.

In September, for example, General Atomics presented plans for a so-called Energy Multiplier Module the size of a school bus, using depleted uranium with helium cooling to operate for 30 years without refuelling.

General Atomics claims the module, which is designed to be placed underground in sealed containment, has a 53% efficiency, twice that of current light water SMR designs.

SMR development in the US took a step forward in 2012 when the Department of Energy (DoE) agreed to pick up half the five-year cost of designing, licensing and commercialising a design.

Babcock & Wilcox won the race to pick up the DoE’s Licensing Technical Support Program, to the chagrin of competitors such as Westinghouse, NuScale Power, Gen4 Energy and SMR.

Funding opportunity

However, all these developers will get another bite of the cherry with a second, USD$452m DoE funding opportunity that is due to close by year-end.

While such moves would appear to put the US in good stead as far as SMR development is concerned, US vendors face a challenge because they are essentially trying to commercialise new technologies.

In contrast, the Russians are hawking a tried-and-tested technology. Harris explains: “These units are based on existing naval reactors, and have many millions of hours of operating experience between their navy and their icebreaking vessels. It is an existing reactor, not a paper one.”

That said, there are also a number of drawbacks with the Russian design. One is its size. The Russian KLT-40S product currently being commercialised, for example, yields 35MWe, making it primarily suitable for off-grid applications.

The mPower reactor being designed by Babcock & Wilcox in association with Bechtel and Tennessee Valley Authority, meanwhile, weighs in at between 125 and 180MWe, giving it major grid potential. Westinghouse is looking at a 225MWe design.

Another challenge for Russia’s SMRs is that they are water-cooled reactors and so require active cooling, potentially increasing the chances of a failure. In a post-Fukushima world, it is also uncertain how barge-mounted reactors could cope with beyond design-basis accidents.

Radiation releases

Theoretically, if a barge sinks the reactor would be passively cooled by the surrounding water, although this is unlikely to be of much comfort to communities that might be affected by water-borne radiation releases.

imately, though, perhaps the biggest obstacle to Russian SMR commercialisation will be their country of origin, in Harris’ opinion.

“I think some of the old Soviet-influenced zones might be interested for installations on their sea coasts,” says Harris. “I highly doubt any mainland European nations would tolerate such a unit just because of it being a Russian reactor.”  This is of course is an opinion and does not necessarily portray what could someday form into an internationally regarded and regulated product.  Notably, despite Harris’ comments nothing has yet to prevent US SMR advocates from being frustrated by Russia’s carefree progress towards commercialisation.

Mark Lewis, an energy consultant for the state administration in Arizona, says: “It is annoying to me that the Russians are pouring major research and development into this non-carbon power source and the US is spending one tenth of others’ research and development budgets.

“The new DoE Secretary signed an agreement with Russia to help with the technology. But it’s going slow.”

The past twelve months have given way to a series of milestones in SMR global development. To get a more in-depth look at how the global SMR market is developing and why, please get a copy of Nuclear Energy Insider’s SMR Report 2013, which provides you with the data, analysis and industry insights you need to construct a commercial framework best placed to optimize opportunities in the global SMR industry.

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