Researchers warn mini-reactors linked with sites in Wales could produce more nuclear waste than convention reactors
New research published this week has concluded that the new generation of small modular nuclear reactors currently in development could generate more radioactive waste than conventional nuclear power plants.
Rolls-Royce has raised about £500m to develop its own Small Modular Reactors (SMR) in the UK, winning investment including £210m of taxpayer funding and money from the Qatar wealth fund.
Both Wylfa and Trawsfynydd in Wales have been discussed as possible sites for their reactors, following the UK Government’s backing for a string of new nuclear power plant in its recently published energy security strategy.
Rolls-Royce claims a single SMR power station will occupy the footprint of two football pitches and power approximately one million homes, with up to 90% of the plant built or assembled in factory conditions.
Industry analysts say these advanced modular designs will be cheaper and produce fewer radioactive by-products than conventional large-scale reactors but a new report from researchers at Stanford University and the University of British Columbia warns these new SMRs could produce significantly higher levels of radioactive waste.
“Our results show that most small modular reactor designs will actually increase the volume of nuclear waste in need of management and disposal, by factors of 2 to 30 for the reactors in our case study,” said study lead author Lindsay Krall.
“These findings stand in sharp contrast to the cost and waste reduction benefits that advocates have claimed for advanced nuclear technologies.”
The new study found that, because of their smaller size, small modular reactors will experience more neutron leakage than conventional reactors.
“The more neutrons that are leaked, the greater the amount of radioactivity created by the activation process of neutrons,” said study co-author Rodney Ewing, the Frank Stanton Professor in Nuclear Security at Stanford.
“We found that small modular reactors will generate at least nine times more neutron-activated steel than conventional power plants.
“These radioactive materials have to be carefully managed prior to disposal, which will be expensive.”
Spent nuclear fuel
The study also found that the spent nuclear fuel from small modular reactors will be discharged in greater volumes per unit energy extracted and can be far more complex than the spent fuel discharged from existing power plants.
“Some small modular reactor designs call for chemically exotic fuels and coolants that can produce difficult-to-manage wastes for disposal,” said co-author Allison Macfarlane, professor and director of the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia.
“Those exotic fuels and coolants may require costly chemical treatment prior to disposal.”
“The takeaway message for the industry and investors is that the back end of the fuel cycle may include hidden costs that must be addressed,” Macfarlane said.
“It’s in the best interest of the reactor designer and the regulator to understand the waste implications of these reactors.”
Last month a spokesman for the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy said: “Small Modular Reactors offer exciting opportunities to cut costs and build more quickly, ensuring we can bring clean electricity to people’s homes and reduce our exposure to volatile gas prices.
“While Small Modular Reactors do not yet exist, countries across the world are racing to develop the technology. Rolls-Royce has confirmed SMRs will be available to the UK grid in the early 2030s and we are working to their timeline, having already committed £210m of government funding.”
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