Improving India’s Future with vSMRs

It is estimated that India’s energy consumption will nearly double between 2019 and 2050. Consequently, India will consume approximately 14% of global primary energy in 2050 as a result of this strong growth. Despite coal’s dominance in energy production, India will also produce a significant amount of energy from alternative sources of energy due to its strong acclimatization to alternate energy sources. To meet the country’s energy needs, nuclear energy production is being developed as an alternative energy source. With a low carbon footprint and being able to produce large amounts of electricity without emitting greenhouse gases, nuclear energy might be a viable solution for meeting India’s energy demands. Moreover, it can assist in achieving its goal of becoming an independent country with respect to clean energy and reducing its dependence on fossil fuels. There are several nuclear reactors in development in India currently, but one comparatively small niche area of nuclear energy production, known as very small nuclear modular reactors (vSMRs), designed to generate 20 MW(e) or less, are not currently being explored. India does not have these technologies at the moment, but if they were focused on, they could lead to a revolution in power generation at a much more modest scale. Experts believe these vSMRs could revolutionize energy production worldwide. However, they report a number of challenges that will need to be overcome before these nuclear reactors can actually be applied in a realistic manner, as reported in their article in AIChE’s CEP on vSMRs. “In the future, with their advanced engineering design and inherent safety, these self-contained modular units encompassing the reactor and all associated safety systems can serve as reliable and low-carbon energy sources in the energy industry,” said Kaustubh Laturkar, a chemical engineer at Michigan State University and the lead author of the article.

The question is, however, how these reactors will fit into India’s nuclear energy generation strategy? “In time, seamlessly” says Mr. Laturkar. “As a developing superpower, these vSMRs could be used in potential specialized remote locations without power grids, such as oil and gas drilling rigs, mines, chemical manufacturing facilities, defense bases, and remote communities. Testing all safety systems takes years of research and development, and a lot of effort and investment is involved. Adding them will provide a reliable source of clean energy that reduces dependence on fossil fuels and mitigates climate change to a certain extent.”

Mr. Laturkar asserts that it is possible to install, operate, and decommission these reactor modules with only minor difficulties. The fuel replenishment lifespans can be as high as 20 years, which is much longer than conventional reactors (between 3 and 6 years). Compact and modular in construction, they are easily transportable. Their small size ensures easy replacement at the end of its lifespan. In 2024, there will be a variety of vSMRs in different stages of conceptualization, design, and prototype construction, but none has been commercialized yet. These vSMRs were designed based on traditional large nuclear reactors that have been refined over several decades. They adhere to rigorous safety standards and are equipped with passive and active control strategies to ensure stability and safety. Several vSMR designs utilize tristructural isotropic (TRISO) fuel, an encapsulated spherical structure with a uranium core which can withstand extreme conditions. Although nuclear reactors have a small footprint, their safety is of the utmost importance. In some reactor designs, the control rods are automatically lowered when they reach criticality. Other designs include flooding reactor activation zones with liquid neutron absorbers. Even when all control systems and power fail, these systems can operate continuously without human intervention.

As Mr. Laturkar noted in his article, this technology presents some unique challenge despite the fact that it is based on years of traditional nuclear reactor research and development. The initial design expenses for vSMRs are expected to be substantial, so government funding is expected to be essential. Government agencies and companies licensing this technology must collaborate and modify regulations to bring this technology to market. In addition, fossil fuels along with renewable technologies will compete with nuclear reactors for lower energy costs with their continually improving technological advances. But in spite of these obstacles, by systematizing their design, the manufacturing process can be optimized, allowing large-scale production, which eventually will lower the cost.

A number of organizations around the world are working on the development of the first generation of these vSMRs. Some examples include Centrum výzkumu Řež, which conceptualized the 20 MW thermal Energy Well. Another company, Toshiba Energy Systems & Solutions Corp., has developed the 10 MW MoveluX reactor, which utilizes uranium silicate fuel and a calcium hydride moderator, separated by heat pipes filled with molten sodium. The eVinci Micro Reactor from Westinghouse is a 5 MW(e) reactor. As its innovative design uses heat pipes to passively transport heat, no reactor coolant or associated cooling water systems are required. For Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation’s (USNC’s) 15 MW Micro Modular Reactor (MMR), a similar preliminary design has been completed. The MMR is being licensed in Canada and the U.S. for worldwide deployment, with the first nuclear power demonstration units scheduled for 2026.

There is no doubt that the design and development phase of very small nuclear reactors is very much in its infancy. Despite their size, they will still be scrutinized in the same way as conventional reactors. But the reactors are inherently stable and have highly sophisticated engineering designs. In the future, these vSMRs may serve as a reliable, low-carbon source of energy, coexisting with other power generation technologies due to their modular designs and enhanced security. With the right kind of support and assistance, a better nuclear future can be envisioned, at least on a smaller scale.

  • Published On Mar 29, 2024 at 01:20 PM IST

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