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IAEA Meeting Examines Potential Enablers and Accelerators of Infrastructure for SMR Deployment

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Experts from around 30 countries met in Vienna last week to discuss the current small modular reactor (SMR) and microreactor landscape and explore ways to accelerate their deployment. Participants from organizations including reactor developers, owners/operators and regulatory bodies presented views on how SMR deployment might be hastened as well as challenges to this effort.

Nuclear power plays a crucial role in the pursuit of global net zero targets. The existing global fleet of 413 operating reactors provides about a quarter of the world’s low-carbon electricity. Still, significant expansion of both nuclear power and renewable energy sources is required to achieve net zero by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency.

“SMRs offer many advantages to technology recipient countries, which is why the IAEA supports Member States to ensure the necessary infrastructure is established and ready to accept these technologies,” said Michelle Scott, an IAEA Senior Nuclear Infrastructure Expert and Scientific Secretary of the meeting.

However, SMR deployment faces challenges. These include financial aspects, legal frameworks, regulatory and human resource development, public acceptance, fuel supply and radioactive waste management. Addressing these issues is crucial to broader deployment of SMRs and harnessing their potential benefits.

The technical meeting, held from 6 to 9 February, offered an opportunity to discuss and collect feedback from countries on a draft Technical Document (TECDOC) addressing various infrastructure issues that could potentially enhance or accelerate development of national nuclear power programmes, with a particular focus on SMR deployment.

The IAEA is developing this TECDOC under the Nuclear Harmonization and Standardization Initiative (NHSI), launched in 2022. NHSI aims to facilitate the deployment of safe and secure SMRs and other advanced reactors. NHSI consists of two tracks, one focused on harmonizing regulatory approaches and the other on supporting the development of more standardized industrial approaches to SMR manufacturing, construction, operations, and management.

Forty-five participants from 29 countries took part in the meeting, including India which has more than five decades of experience in the design and operation of nuclear power plants. Currently, India has 23 operating reactors with another nine under construction. Both SMRs and large reactors are expected to play a key role in decarbonizing India’s energy sector.

“India has the requisite expertise and is prepared to meet the challenges associated with deploying SMRs,” said Braham Parkash, Associate Director of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited. “Addressing vital issues including aspects related to establishing robust supply chains and reducing costs through local manufacturing will be central to our deployment plans.” India’s relatively low-cost infrastructure and human resources can contribute to reducing the cost of deploying SMRs in India, he added.

Ghana, which officially approved the use of nuclear power in August 2022, is getting close to selecting a vendor for its first nuclear power plant. However, the country currently lacks a financing model and is exploring ways to implement a sustainable approach to deploying nuclear power, including with SMRs. “It is important that our nuclear power projects have diversified funding streams and do not rely solely on financing from banks,” said Seth Kofi Debrah, Director of the Nuclear Power Institute at the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission. “We are engaging vendors and asking for their input as we consider ways to reduce the risk of financial issues slowing down our deployment of nuclear power.”

Poland is aiming to deploy nuclear power by the mid-2030s as it works to reduce its reliance on coal-fired power plants. An estimated 6-9 GW(e) of nuclear power capacity from large nuclear power plants is planned, and additional capacity via SMR deployments is also being considered. “As we work through pre-licensing activities, identifying possible gaps in regulatory requirements and preparing clear plans for license application reviews will be important,” said Dominik Rauchut, a Nuclear Regulatory Inspector at the Poland National Atomic Energy Agency. “We also need to thoroughly review potential barriers to licensing to help prevent disagreements with the regulatory body.”

Input received during the meeting will be incorporated into the TECDOC, which is set to be published by the end of this year.

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