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Net Zero Emissions Goals and Economic Feasibility make Nuclear Micro-reactors the Next Big Thing

The world is moving fast from energy sources based on fossil fuels to renewable ones. Although renewable sources like solar and wind energy are fast becoming the choice of deployments globally, nuclear energy remains one of the biggest untapped sources of renewable energy. With technological progress, micro-reactors or smaller nuclear power options have surfaced as a potentially significant source of energy for the world.

Why Microreactors

Nuclear energy production has conventionally been mired in cost overruns and delay. As per reports, the total installed capacity of large-scale nuclear power plants is less than 400 Gigawatts in 2020. This is almost half of the over 700 gigawatts of the installed solar power capacity by the same time.

A traditional nuclear reactor has the ability to generate about 1,000 megawatts of electricity while a microreactor generates just 1 to 10 megawatts. Unlike a traditional nuclear reactor project, which is seen as a large infrastructure venture, production companies can harness economies of scale and distribute such micro-reactors as a commercial product.

Owing to their portability and the feasibility to transport through ship, planes or tractors, they avoid the pitfalls that the world has noticed in Chernobyl or Fukushima.

With the reactor core lasting for a long time without the need for refuelling, the units can be monitored and controlled remotely. Additionally, there is little need for maintenance and low staff requirements, resulting in lower costs. Micro-reactors can easily replace diesel-powered gensets in remote locations too.

According to nuclear-engineering experts, the greenhouse-gas emissions for nuclear power are 1/700th of those of coal, 1/400th of gas, and one-fourth of solar plants. The plants also need very little land as compared to solar and wind power plants. Since they are air-cooled and capable of being shut down quickly with no risk of radioactive release and occupy small spaces, the SMRs (Small Modular Reactors) can be used for propulsion of large commercial ships and charging stations for electrical vehicles.

The Potential

According to the 2017 report by the US based Idaho National Laboratory, micro-reactors have the potential to expand nuclear power’s contribution in Western Europe and North America while it deployments can be seen in Asia and Eastern Europe by 2035.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), thirteen countries in 2020 ensured one-quarter of their electricity requirements were met through nuclear energy. Countries like France get about 75 per cent of the electricity requirements from conventional nuclear energy while other European countries such as Ukraine and Slovakia get about half of electricity requirements from nuclear power. Furthermore, countries like Finland, Bulgaria, Belgium, Hungary, Slovenia and Czech Republic account for one-third electricity requirement through nuclear power.  Other major economies such as South Korea, US, UK, Romania, Spain and Russia also receive one-fifth of electricity from such sources. Hence, the above-mentioned countries can take a leap towards micro-reactors to harness nuclear energy in a sustainable manner.

Latest Developments

In 2021, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had done a study underscoring the importance of diverse mix of low-carbon sources for clean energy transition.

A Silicon Valley start-up, Oklo, is already charting out a plan for building mini-nuclear reactors, which are powered by waste of conventional reactors. The company is already in the process of gaining the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission, USA) licensing. It is estimated that more than 20 US companies are working on scalable, transportable and versatile micro-reactors.

Earlier in November 2021, the US Air Force had announced deployment of nuclear micro-reactor of up to 5 MWe (megawatt electrical), which would be commercially owned, operated and licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The planned micro-reactor by Eielson will supplement coal power with 1-5 MWe of nuclear power.

Another micro-reactor in advanced stages includes a 4 MWe reactor developed by U-Battery, a URENCO-led company located in the UK that would commence operations in 2028. While start-ups are obviously jumping on to the opportunity, a consortium led by Rolls-Royce earlier in 2021 announced plans for building 16 mini-nuclear plants in the UK. This is essential as the UK Government is looking at achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Rolls Royce and its partners aim to re-engineer nuclear power as a high-tech lego set.

Radiant, another US-based company is also developing portable nuclear micro-reactor, and is in the process of garnering funds to move ahead on its journey. The company opines that 1 MW of electricity can operate for about eight years and can power over 1,000 homes.

Additionally, three companies were awarded contracts under Project Pele, a US Department of Defense programme, aiming to deploy forward cutting-edge micro-reactors.

In 2018, the roadmap for micro-reactor deployment by Nuclear Energy Institute, supported by the US Air Force, suggested that most departments of Defence installations will seek one or more micro-reactors. For military bases, micro-reactors can provide protection from vulnerability as in the case of grid-reliance.

The world’s second largest economy, China has also commenced construction of a Small Modular Reactor project for 125 megawatt land-based pressurized water reactor. Furthermore, Russia is working on modifying 50 MW icebreaker reactor for remote sites. Such systems can be built quickly and also give grid flexibility for complementing intermittent renewables besides providing heat for communities and industry, besides energy for desalination plants.

The North American country, Canada’s three provinces – Ontario, New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan – have already signed a memorandum for looking into deployment of SMRs.

Critical Backup option

There is a strong need for local governments to consider integrating micro-reactors into their energy strategies. Since they can operate as part of microgrids, they can serve as an emergency backup for cities. They can run continuously alongside the existing grid in normal times, and take over critical systems such as police stations, fire stations, hospitals, and communication networks in case of a natural disaster.


With upfront investment of USD 10 million and minimal maintenance costs, it can be easily deployed in hospitals and educational institutions. While solar and wind have got tax breaks and other subsidies, there is a strong need for new climate-focused regulations to reduce carbon. Safety has been one of the most pertinent questions with respect to nuclear energy and hence there is a need to assuage the concerns.

Developments in Micro-reactors in India

India being one of the largest energy and defence markets globally, the country’s total installed nuclear power capacity in 2021 stood at 7,500 gigawatts, with seven major nuclear power plants. Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) can bridge the energy deficit in grid-deprived regions and challenging terrains such as in northern and north-eastern hilly regions and places like the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The Department of Atomic Energy is reported to exploring building small light water reactors on a modular platform. It has already built a small light water reactor that powers its nuclear submarine INS Arihant.

The immediate future looks interesting how technology and investment opportunities emerge in the area of micro-reactors, both in the developed economies and the energy-hungry emerging nations alike.


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