Cost-competitive SMRs will find place in electricity ecosystem

16 September 2020

Small modular reactors (SMRs) will be an excellent fit in a carbon-free energy future which will require all energy sources to work together, but they must be cost-competitive with other forms of electricity generation, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy President and CEO Jay Wileman told participants in World Nuclear Association's Strategic eForum last week.

Jay Wileman at the Strategic eForum (Image: World Nuclear Association)

Speaking during a high-level panel on Maximising nuclear energy's socio-economic and environmental benefits, Wileman said the company had innovated to bring down the cost of its SMR through simplification of systems, advanced concrete solutions, and construction techniques, as well as leveraging its existing, proven supply chain and components, to target deployment by 2028.

The carbon-free energy future is "absolutely" going to require all different types of energy sources to work together to provide a stable grid, with reliable operation and cost-optimised power prices, Wileman said.

Nuclear has traditionally been seen as only a baseload operation, running 24/7 and producing reliable, carbon-free power, he said. "That has been the mainstay of our message, and that's what we have been delivering. However, as we start to see the increase in penetration of renewables, you will need to acknowledge the ability for nuclear not to just be baseload, but to load-follow: something that is not typically thought of with a nuclear reactor.

"I think that, looking forward, small modular reactors are excellently fit for that purpose, and the ability to follow the output of renewables and load-follow on the grid," he said.

Nuclear could be "more than just zero-carbon, reliable, dispatchable power" but must be at the right price, he said. The high capex and overnight costs of current nuclear builds make it very difficult for private companies to support such projects on their balance sheet, Wileman said.

"What if you could build a small modular reactor of 300 MW for USD1 billion or less?" he asked. "What if you could build a nuclear plant where the possibility of a large LOCA [loss of coolant accident] was totally eliminated? Imagine all the safety equipment in today's designs, that wouldn't be required for the safe operation of that plant. What if you could figure out how to take advantage of those and simplify a plant such that it requires 90% less safety-related concrete and 50% less concrete per MW?"

This is the approach GE-Hitachi has taken in designing the BWRX-300, which Wileman described as a "design-to-cost" exercise. BWRX-300 is based on the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission-certified 1,520 MWe Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR) design.

"We're not stand-alone - we are in an ecosystem of electricity generation," he said. "We've taken a lot of this work and we've simplified things - the advanced concrete and construction techniques - and we're also moving back away from nuclear-specific design and going to catalogue items, and leveraging a lot of the supply chain that we've already got instead of having to stand up a new one, as well as using already existing and operating fuel designs, which are already in use in over 70% of the BWRs around the world."

According to material published by GE-Hitachi, the ESBWR has about 160,000 cubic metres of safety-related concrete while the BWRX-300 has only 15,500 cubic metres.  Most of the nuclear-related technology and components used in the plant either have had many years of proven operation experience or have undergone significant testing and licensing as part of the ESBWR programme, while advanced concrete solutions and innovative techniques incorporated in the design have been proved in the oil and gas, tunnelling and power industries.

The flexibility of SMRs also means they will be able to support a variety of activities beyond electricity generation, providing cost-competitive and environmentally friendly power for uses such as hydrogen production, desalination, district heating and industrial use, Wileman said, highlighting GE-Hitachi's ongoing discussions with Polish manufacturer Synthos on using the BWRX-300 to meet that company's electricity needs.

GE-Hitachi is on track to bring BWRX-300 to the market by 2028, Wileman said, adding: "I really am excited about moving from 'What if?', to really getting it done"

Researched and written by World Nuclear News