The rise of nuclear technology 2.0 – Interview with Anicet Touré

Tractebel recently published the White Paper “The rise of nuclear technology 2.0 – Tractebel’s vision on Small Modular Reactors“, unveiling its vision for SMRs and the ambitious role Tractebel aims to play in the future.

In order to learn more about this challenging and interesting vision, the European Nuclear Society interviewed Anicet Touré, Product Manager – SMR & Advanced Technologies and Engineering Management – Nuclear at Tractebel, and author of the White Paper together with Célestin Piette and Philippe Monette.

“Small Modular Reactors” became a buzzword for the developing nuclear technology. In the wake of the growing attention of the nuclear sector towards them, what SMRs represent in Tractebel’s vision?

Indeed, over the last five years especially, Small Modular Reactor has become a bit of a buzzword even though not everyone uses it in the exact same sense. For instance, I’m not convinced that SMR definitions that are centred around a ceiling in power output, say 300MWe, capture the real essence of what SMRs bring to the table.

In Tractebel’s vision, what really sets SMRs apart is their new business model that addresses the challenges of the nuclear industry in tomorrow’s energy market. This business model is centred around a few main ingredients:

  • designing products that are enablers of the carbon-neutral transition, i.e. flexible and capable of decarbonizing non-electric applications;
  • recreating financial appetite for investments in nuclear endeavours by making project smaller in (absolute) capital expenditures and targeting more standardized products to improve delivery certainty;
  • restoring public acceptance of nuclear energy by moving towards walk-away safe concepts – i.e. concepts that can passively reach safe states, do not rely on operator actions at least for the first few days after an accident initiating event and can eliminate the need for offsite evacuation of population in the worst-case scenario.

In my view, the fact that such a diversity of concepts and technologies are advertised under the same banner is sensible as long they fill that bill.

Tractebel has invested three years in studying and analysing in-depth this evolving field of nuclear technology. What tools have enabled you to reach these conclusions?

First and foremost, I believe that what has made the strength of our analysis is that we really spent time trying to formulate the right questions to be addressed – and I need to thank the many detractors of SMRs over the years for feeding our ability to do that.

Once we had identified the key critical success (or failure) factors for SMRs, the process of developing or selecting the right tools is really part of the day-to-day job of an engineering firm like Tractebel.

From The rise of nuclear technology 2.0 – Tractebel’s vision on Small Modular Reactors

I believe the first tool we developed was a design assessment and comparative tool to evaluate technologies based on a defined user specification and the critical success factors. We have also been able to leverage the multi-métier expertise of Tractebel (also in domains other than nuclear energy) to tackle a wide variety of topics such as cost analysis, power market modelling, process heat market studies, industrial and nuclear safety analysis, hydrogen and e-fuel production process, etc.

Among several projects and prototypes, is there a winning concept in Tractebel’s opinion?

There will probably be a few winning concepts. We don’t see one SMR as a one-size-fits-all solution. Our recommendation for any type of energy user considering SMRs is always to start by specifying what are the timeline, needs or duties that the SMR needs to fulfil and to select the most appropriate concept.

That being said, there will not be a market for the 70 concepts that are currently under development. Our work over the last few years has led us to identify five or six really promising concepts. It is a fast-changing market so the list I would point out now is slightly different from the one we had come up with three years ago.

But generally speaking, our approach is a bi-modal one: we believe in the front-runner light-water SMRs to become market initiators and at the same time that game-changing features in safety, cost-competitiveness, long-term waste solution or industrial applications will come from a second wave of advanced technologies such as Molten Salt or High Temperature Gas-cooled SMRs.

Which opportunities do SMRs offer for the energy transition and decarbonisation?

There are two strong arguments in favor of SMRs in the energy transition debate.

First of all, the decarbonisation of the electricity mix is what has been drawing most of the attention in the debate while it represents only 20% to 30% of the challenge, even if we consider growing electrification. The ability of SMR to deliver medium to high temperature steam to industrials and to produce low-carbon hydrogen, for example to decarbonize the long range transportation, adds a much needed low-carbon solution if we want to the decarbonize the whole economy.

The other strength of SMRs lies in their enhanced load-balancing capabilities, and for some advanced technologies even GWh-scale energy storage, that are ideal to complement the intermittency of renewables. Our power market simulation studies have even shown that dispatchable nuclear electricity has a positive impact on the profitability of renewables when they occupy the most important share of the electricity mix: simply because it decreases the need for investments in expensive storage capacity and transmission lines.

Overall thanks to that built-in flexibility, SMRs can act both as the backbone of tomorrow’s complex energy ecosystems and as a catalyst that could accelerate the deployment of renewables. This serves a common goal that should be the true priority of today: phasing-out of carbonated energy production at an affordable cost.

Possible future scenarios for the electricity market and production. From The rise of nuclear technology 2.0 – Tractebel’s vision on Small Modular Reactors

Which impact could SMRs have on European heat market?

European industries are under great international competition. Topping that with the timeframe of the European environmental and climate ambitions makes a very challenging context for all heat and cogeneration producers.

Talking with industrials, the general feeling is that all the solutions that can contribute are needed and SMRs are definitely a very attractive one, especially as there are few low-carbon alternatives.

Nuclear energy could provide decarbonized heat to various energy intensive sectors (e.g.: chemical clusters). Given the size of the heat market – we have identified more than 100 compatible sites in Europe – there is a potential to deploy a stream of projects that would also help bring down cost to level competitive with all carbonated alternatives.

I would add to this that the heat market (through steam as an energy vector) is not fungible. This means that there is no large liberalized market for heat. This local aspect could justify the possibility of long term Power Purchase Agreement that would facilitate private capital being invested into industrial nuclear projects.

Hydrogen is largely seen as a potential key source for the near-future and long-term decarbonisation, as well NPPs can produce hydrogen using different methods that would greatly reduce air emissions while taking advantage of the constant thermal energy and electricity it reliably provides.

Which role could SMRs play in the production of the so-called “pink hydrogen”?

About half of the energy needed to produce hydrogen from water correspond to evaporation. Keeping in mind that nuclear energy is produced under the form of heat in the first place, great thermodynamic efficiency can be gained by dedicating research to electrolysers that can operate with low to high temperature steam – This is what is currently being done by diverse actors in the US, Canada and France for example.

This feature is valid for all nuclear technologies, including large scale ones. The difference SMR could make is twofold:

  • (1) their design and size are inherently better suited to accommodate such cogeneration application.
  • (2) the SMR safety case (yet to be demonstrated) is expected to allow plant to be situated next to industrial plants, where the hydrogen is needed, hence reducing the associated logistical infrastructures.

Looking at the bigger picture, I would also point out that a heavy burden is already placed on renewables to decarbonize the electrical grid. The massive investments done in Germany and remaining shortcomings show the extent of the challenge.

I think it’s unrealistic to also ask renewables to produce alone all the low-carbon hydrogen that our economies will need to reach the carbon emission objectives of 2050.

Furthermore, the promise that hydrogen can be produced from excess renewable energy not consumed on the grid faces a big hurdle: electrolysers needed to produce hydrogen are capital intensive machines that cannot be made profitable if used with a very low load factor.

That’s where nuclear steps in! You could produce hydrogen baseload thanks to NPPs and only stop a few hours per year to send the electricity to the grid in periods of wind lulls and little sunshine. That again proves the true complementarity of nuclear and renewables.