Small Modular Reactors Take Large Step Forward

July 20, 2016, 12:03PMANS Nuclear Cafe

In recent years the allure of small, flexible, easy to construct and operate nuclear plants incorporating small modular reactors (SMR) have continued to grow for a host of reasons. Here in the United States, we've watched the saga of the SMR unfold fairly slowly over the last few years, as companies have entered the fray to various levels of success and have achieved varied degrees of progress.*  Now, the latest large step in getting these small and versatile reactors into the worldwide commercial market has been taken - by an effort involving Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

Last month, the design and construction arm of Korea Electric Power Company (KEPCO E&C) signed a contract with Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) to perform the first full round of engineering required to design a complete nuclear power plant which would contain the KAERI-developed SMART (System-integrated Modular Advanced Reactor) SMR .  While others are underway (such as design of NuScale's plant, and actual construction of the CAREM SMR in Argentina) this project represents a major first as it is essentially an export and not a domestic project.

Conceptual SMART SMR nuclear power plant.  Illustration courtesy KAERI.

Conceptual SMART SMR nuclear power plant. Illustration courtesy KAERI.

Background on the SMART SMR

The SMART SMR was designed by KAERI independently as a priority project over a span of some fifteen years; it is an integral, pressurized water reactor - which simply means that the reactor, steam generators and pumps are all contained within, or mounted on, the reactor vessel. "SMART" stands for System-integrated Modular Advanced ReacTor.  KAERI's design was type approved by  in July 2012, and it was expected in many quarters that an order might follow from KEPCO.

It turned out that KEPCO was not interested in building small nuclear plants, or small power plants of any type for that matter - it continues today to order large, 1400 MWe nuclear plants which will move up to 1500 MWe when the APR+ is ordered en masse. Instead, KAERI and South Korea had to hope that the export market would find the "world's first design approved SMR," as it was referred to by KAERI, an exciting prospect.

Saudi Arabia and the SMR

As is the case now with a number of arid nations, Saudi Arabia became interested in the idea of nuclear energy for a variety of purposes - not only including power, but for production of water as well.  The SMART SMR was originally conceived with such services in mind, which led to an agreement between Saudi Arabia's nuclear energy arm and KAERI in March 2015.  That agreement detailed a three year project whose purpose was to determine feasibility of constructing one or more SMART units in Saudi Arabia.  An agreement to "dive in" and perform actual engineering work was signed the following September.

Last month (June 2016) the latest important step in this project was taken with the aforementioned award of the KEPCO E&C contract.  Until that point, SMART had been essentially a reactor without a home -- there was no workable (buildable) physical design at all for a complete power plant incorporating it, although there were (as seen above) concepts.  This project will complete the basic design of a full-power plant, and part of the detailed design.  In addition, specifications for the equipment required will be generally developed, which is the first step in either ordering or else designing required plant components.  A Preliminary Safety Analysis Report (PSAR) will also be prepared.

This contract will also see the designing of a whole passive safety system to be built into the SMART SMR power plant, in line with the most modern thinking about "walk away safety" and Station Blackout (SBO).  An SBO is a condition in which all electric power is lost and simple, hands-free or "passive" safety systems come into action.

This portion of the engineering of the plant is expected to be completed in November 2018.  It is expected that with the progress of this Saudi Arabian project, Korea's SMART SMR will be seen as another solid export nuclear plant for Korea, along with the large APR1400 (which is already being built in the UAE.)

* In the United States, NuScale Power continues to forge ahead with its novel and highly innovative SMR and power plant concept; the mPower SMR is under detailed analysis by Bechtel Corporation working towards a "go or no-go" decision to continue the technology and push to NRC design certification; the Holtec SMR continues to be offered but as yet has no commercial interest; the Westinghouse SMR is also still very much on the table with newly renewed effort, although actual commercial plans to build one at Callaway were dashed some time back.  TVA will continue to plan for SMRs at its Clinch River site, without a specific model yet designated.

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