Nuclear powerSmall Modular Reactors May Mitigate Climate Change

By Ranjit Devraj

Published 18 August 2021

The consequences of carbon emissions from the large-scale burning of fossil fuels are all around us, from relentless wildfires to scorching heatwaves to devastating floods to destructive megadroughts. There is renewed interest in nuclear energy, specifically in the new generation of small modular reactors.

As the world grapples with a climate emergency brought on by carbon emissions from the large-scale burning of fossil fuels, there is renewed interest in nuclear energy, specifically in the new generation of small modular reactors.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecast in its Sixth Assessment Report, released 9 August, that global average air temperatures may rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels by 2040. The latest report brings new urgency to cut emissions drastically.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement all countries are required to set targets to help stay within the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit and work towards a carbon-neutral goal by finding alternatives to coal, oil, natural gas and other fossil fuels.

Of the many alternatives, small modular reactors – defined by the International Atomic Energy Association as nuclear reactors that are 300 megawatts or less in capacity (conventional reactors produce 1,000 megawatts or more) – win out for having minimal environmental footprint. They also take up far less space than conventional power plants or wind and solar farms that produce renewable energy.

Nanda Kumar Janardhanan, who teaches energy studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and operations coordinator in South Asia for the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Japan, says that “unlike conventional large nuclear power facilities, which can take a decade or more to build and become operational, small reactors can be ready in a fraction of that time” as they are small enough to be manufactured in a factory and transported to the operating site.

“Countries that need clean energy supply can possibly use small modular reactors as an alternative to depending on environmentally damaging thermal power. This is one of the direct benefits that it offers towards climate mitigation,” Janardhanan says. As the demand for hydrogen as a fuel for transportation and industry grows, small modular reactors could also provide the energy needed to generate hydrogen, he adds.

“Despite these advantages, the wider usage of small modular reactors will demand a transformative change in safety measures so as to build public confidence and gain acceptance,” says Janardhanan, referring to disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima “which have led to anti-nuclear perceptions among certain societies or people”.