Addressing the Clean Energy Challenge in Industry with Small Modular Reactors

In our modern era, we see an increasing quality of life that is still highly coupled with energy use. But the current state of the climate crisis has brought us to a crossroads where we must reimagine energy production, consumption, and its impact on the environment and possible ways for efficient use of energy sources.

Fossil fuels currently account for a staggering 85% of global energy needs, and with the projection of tripled energy demands by 2050, their role is still strong as a cheap and reliable way to produce electrons.

As we strive to ensure a sustainable planet for future generations—one that boasts clean air, ample resources, and thriving biodiversity—achieving global net-zero emissions as soon as it is technically feasible is not just a goal, but a necessity. 2050 is a late target when most of the effects of climate change are going to be irreversible.

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The Industrial Carbon Footprint

While significant efforts have been directed toward cleaning up the electrical grid, particularly to support the electrification of transportation, heating, and buildings, there's another crucial facet of the emissions puzzle: industrial processes.
These industries, which encompass iron and steel, chemicals, oil, mining, steel, and cement production, contribute nearly 30% of global carbon emissions — surpassing the carbon footprint of something as widespread as electricity generation.
This figure shows the CO2 emissions generated by each sector in which Industry covers both Industry itself and large portions of Energy’s emissions.
This figure shows the CO2 emissions generated by each sector in which Industry covers both Industry itself and large portions of Energy’s emissions.

These processes demand high-temperature heat and steam around the clock, a challenge exacerbated by the expense and complexity of transitioning them away from fossil fuels.

The potential of aSMRs

This is where the potential of advanced Small Modular Reactors (aSMRs) comes into play. These cutting-edge technologies, characterized by compact size and versatility, can provide the high-temperature, dense heat necessary for heavy industries to thrive in a clean energy economy.
Unlike traditional large-scale nuclear reactors, aSMRs offer a new path to industrial net-zero emissions and beyond.
The versatility of aSMRs has caught the attention of various stakeholders, from businesses to governments and regulators, such as the government of Canada, who have invested $74m dollars in an aSMR project in Saskatchewan. These reactors have the potential to revolutionize numerous industrial sectors, offering a reliable and scalable energy solution without the repercussions commonly associated with traditional nuclear plants.
One application lies in the creation of clean fuels, such as synthetic diesel and ammonia/hydrogen, which are essential for steel and cement production, transportation, and more.
Furthermore, certain aSMR designs generate heat at temperatures that can directly support manufacturing processes. This yields a cross-industry emission reduction benefit, as they won’t just be able to supply non-fossil fuel energy sources, they’ll help reduce the emissions produced by heavy industry. This is heralded by some, such as X-energy as an “immense opportunity to further reduce emissions in the energy-intensive industrial sector” as they’ll effectively be generating fossil-free industrial heat, while reducing emissions at the same time.
By replacing the heat generated by fossil fuels, aSMRs can enable heavy industries to embrace cleaner alternatives while maintaining uninterrupted operations.
The applications extend to desalination, where aSMRs can provide process heat and distributed energy to power paper mills, refineries, and agricultural areas. Coastal regions can also benefit from aSMRs' ability to desalinate water, ensuring water security and bolstering local economies.

aSMR: A safer modular reactor

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Safety is a paramount concern in the nuclear energy sector, and aSMR designs address this concern effectively. Engineered for passive safety, some aSMRs operate at low pressure, use robust fuel forms and different coolant materials, and combine safe operations with efficient production of steam-derived heat.
The compact footprint of these reactors, often comparable to the size of a city block, makes them highly adaptable to various industrial sites. Their modular nature supports mass production and allows them to be seamlessly integrated into specific locations.
One of the most promising aspects of aSMRs is their infrequent refueling cycles:
“Power plants based on SMRs may require less frequent refueling, every 3 to 7 years… Some SMRs are designed to operate for up to 30 years without refueling.”
This stands in contrast to traditional reactors, which need refueling at least once every two years.
Spent nuclear fuel, often regarded as a concern, becomes a valuable resource in the aSMR context. It can be reprocessed to a remarkable 95% or directly utilized in certain advanced reactor designs.
This not only ensures a more reliable energy supply but also contributes to limited waste generation and reduced maintenance costs—an attractive proposition for heavy industry players. So overall, there is plenty to be excited about when it comes to aSMRs. They help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, have more versatile operational capabilities than larger nuclear reactors, while their refuelling is often less frequent. In the grand tapestry of decarbonization, experts have ideated a solution that leverages modern shipyard manufacturing and floating power plants. By tapping into existing industrial capabilities and advanced modular reactor technology, we can envision a future where aviation, shipping, cement production, and other industries are fully and cost-competitively decarbonized by mid-century. It could be the case that all we need is a different attitude towards putting the terms “green” and “nuclear” in the same sentence. The journey towards a sustainable and decarbonized world is no small feat. However, through the innovative prowess of advanced small modular reactors, we have a powerful tool at our disposal to tackle the challenges that heavy industry poses in our fight against climate change. With the versatility, safety, and efficiency that aSMRs bring to the table, we are forging a path toward a cleaner, more sustainable industrial landscape, ensuring a planet worth inheriting for generations to come. Read more here:

  • Munene Mugambi

    36 w

    Would like to see this project and how it would work in an uncontrolled environment

    • Sarah Chabane

      38 w

      Interesting, how would aSMRs or SMRs tackle existing challenges: - How do you scale up this solution? Are there mass fabrication factories? - How do you deal with the extremely high water demand to operate these nuclear reactors? - How to justify the high costs of SMRs when the costs of wind and solar electricity have been declining consistently and will continue to do so?

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