Small Modular Reactors – my new adventure in nuclear engineering
Written by Nicholas Morris, Project Lead / Chef de Projet – SMR Innovations
Even though many people think of nuclear as old technology, far less interesting and dynamic than renewables, the truth is that it is an industry which is constantly trying to re-invent itself and find new ways to make energy production safer, cleaner and more cost-effective. Having now been in the nuclear industry for 6 years, I have seen how talented engineers at both ends of the experience spectrum have been working on developing new technologies to realise these goals.
I have recently had the opportunity to get involved in one of the most talked-about topics in nuclear – Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). There are a number of features of an SMR that make it one of the most interesting areas of innovation and explain why the topic provokes such debate. It is true that for some countries, the SMR proposition is far more attractive than building a fleet of larger power plants because we expect it will be cost-effective, faster and less complex to build. You can also fit an SMR where another EPR is logistically impossible. At Assystem Energy & Infrastructure, we are focusing one of our in-house innovation projects on SMRs and looking at the key issues of time, effort and cost and the role of digitalisation in reducing these. Beyond this, and the area I’m most invested in personally is figuring out, in amongst a lengthy list of possibilities, how SMRs can facilitate the Energy Transition towards tomorrow’s decarbonised future.
The digital world we live in will influence not only how SMRs are designed and built, but also how they are used. Building Information Modelling (BIM), Multi-scale and Multi-physics simulation techniques, Product Life Cycle Management (PLM), Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual and Augmented Reality and cutting-edge construction techniques all have a part to play in getting an SMR into production and operation. Smart Grids with connected infrastructures mean that we are increasingly able to predict energy requirements and match production, therefore minimising waste. With the Climate Action Plan 2020 targets looming, intelligent production and use of energy are crucial and SMRs can be seen as a leading light in anticipating the future of nuclear energy.
So, have we reached the point where this is now a case of “when” rather than “if”?
It feels like we are on the brink of a new era, akin to the time when nuclear energy emerged and the excitement as the first AGR was built in Windscale, Cumbria in the 1950’s and the French park launched in the late 1970’s. As a young engineer early in my career, the prospect of being involved in new technology from the very start is invigorating. Colleagues at the European Nuclear Young Generation Forum (a group of students and young professionals from across the European nuclear industry) earlier this year were all in agreement. What is certain is that as well as driving forward and making sure we harness all the best of modern tools and technologies to make SMRs a reality, we must listen to the lessons from those nuclear trailblazers from the previous generation and those organisations with decades of experience in the current technologies. I am ideally placed to do just that as I embark on this awfully big (or should that read “Small”?) and rather exciting adventure.