Market analyst IDTechEx expects the installation rate of small modular reactors (SMRs) to grow significantly from the end of the decade, contributing significantly to solving the climate crisis.

The flexibility of these reactors beyond supplying electricity to the grid is a significant reason that their expected impact is so broad.

These were findings in the latest report released by IDTechEx, titled Nuclear Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) 2023-2043, which shows the global market for SMRs is expected to reach $72.4 billion by 2033 and $295 billion by 2043, representing a CAGR of 30% in this period.

The report outlines the level of potential of SMRs, with twenty-year forecasting outlining the expected rise of SMRs as tools for decarbonization. It identifies additional business models to grid power supply as important motivators for uptake – in 2024, the ongoing AI boom is intensifying demand here.

SMRs aim to take advantage of assembly line production to reduce cost and construction time compared to the large reactors that form the bulk of today’s nuclear fleet. Their smaller size and frequent use of advanced fourth-generation reactor designs also make them more flexible than today’s reactors, opening uses beyond supplying power to the grid directly.

SMRs offer a solution to the data center energy crisis

According to the International Energy Agency, annual energy consumption from data centers could double between 2024 and 2026 to exceed 1,000 TWh. The widening rollout of advanced AI models is the major reason for this astounding increase. SMRs typically have electrical capacities of 300 MW or less, closely matching the demands of many data centers, and promise to provide reliable baseload capacity without the need for energy storage. It is no surprise that the data center and AI industries are showing increasing interest in SMRs to provide on-site power.

OpenAI’s Sam Altman has chaired the board of SMR firm Oklo Energy since 2015 and the company says it has signed letters of intent for powering data center locations by the end of the decade. Last December, Microsoft hired the former director of nuclear strategy & programs at SMR firm Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation as a director in its nuclear program, which may have links to the massive AI acceleration centers it is expected to construct for its partner, OpenAI. In March, Amazon Web Services acquired a data center drawing 475 MW of power from a co-located large nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, proving the utility of this concept. The increased flexibility and lower predicted cost of SMRs are only expected to increase viability here.

SMRs could power the hydrogen economy and decarbonize critical industries

SMRs offer an excellent complement to renewable energy in the production of green hydrogen that could reduce reliance on costly energy storage systems. With an SMR supplying baseload capacity on a local grid alongside variable renewables like solar and wind energy, electricity overcapacity in the network at times of peak production could be diverted to water electrolysers located at the SMR facility, producing carbon-free pink hydrogen.

Since SMRs will be located next to abundant water supplies and have their own water treatment facilities, this part of their infrastructure could pull double duty, reducing overall capital costs. Rolls-Royce SMR has suggested this form of hydrogen production could make up a significant part of the business model for some of its sites.

Source: IDTechEx

There is also the potential to use Gen IV reactor design-based SMRs to directly supply process heat to hard to decarbonize industries without needing to go through the proxy of generating electricity. Compared to most existing reactors, the higher operating temperatures of Gen IV designs massively expands their compatibility with industrial processes, even those as demanding as steelmaking. The Japan Atomic Energy Agency recently outlined its ongoing project to retrofit its existing demonstration HTGR (High Temperature Gas-cooled Reactor) to steam reform methane for hydrogen production to IDTechEx, demonstrating the potential here.

Canadian startup Terrestrial Energy’s SMR design uses a molten salt reactor (MSRs), which allows it to supply process heat at extremely high temperatures, even for a Gen IV reactor. These reactors are aimed specifically at installation in industrial zones, where they could co-generate heat and electricity. The safety benefits of Gen IV designs make this co-location more attractive: in the case of MSRs, core melts are effectively impossible since the fuel is already molten in the coolant salt, and low operating pressures reduce the risk of coolant leaks.

Author: Sam Dale, Senior Technology Analyst at IDTechEx

Originally published on Power Engineering International.

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