Benefits of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs)

Office of Nuclear Energy

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Small modular reactors offer a lower initial capital investment, greater scalability, and siting flexibility for locations unable to accommodate more traditional larger reactors.  They also have the potential for enhanced safety and security compared to earlier designs. Deployment of advanced SMRs can help drive economic growth.


The term “modular” in the context of SMRs refers to the ability to fabricate major components of the nuclear steam supply system in a factory environment and ship to the point of use.  Even though current large nuclear power plants incorporate factory-fabricated components (or modules) into their designs, a substantial amount of field work is still required to assemble components into an operational power plant. SMRs are envisioned to require limited on-site preparation and substantially reduce the lengthy construction times that are typical of the larger units. SMRs provide simplicity of design, enhanced safety features, the economics and quality afforded by factory production, and more flexibility (financing, siting, sizing, and end-use applications) compared to larger nuclear power plants. Additional modules can be added incrementally as demand for energy increases.  


SMRs can reduce a nuclear plant owner’s capital investment due to the lower plant capital cost.  Modular components and factory fabrication can reduce construction costs and duration.


SMRs can provide power for applications where large plants are not needed or sites lack the infrastructure to support a large unit. This would include smaller electrical markets, isolated areas, smaller grids, sites with limited water and acreage, or unique industrial applications. SMRs are expected to be attractive options for the replacement or repowering of aging/retiring fossil plants, or to provide an option for complementing existing industrial processes or power plants with an energy source that does not emit greenhouse gases.  


SMRs can be coupled with other energy sources, including renewables and fossil energy, to leverage resources and produce higher efficiencies and multiple energy end-products while increasing grid stability and security.  Some advanced SMR designs can produce a higher temperature process heat for either electricity generation or industrial applications.


SMR designs have the distinct advantage of factoring in current safeguards and security requirements. Facility protection systems, including barriers that can withstand design basis aircraft crash scenarios and other specific threats, are part of the engineering process being applied to new SMR design.  SMRs also provide safety and potential nonproliferation benefits to the United States and the wider international community.  Most SMRs will be built below grade for safety and security enhancements, addressing vulnerabilities to both sabotage and natural phenomena hazard scenarios. Some SMRs will be designed to operate for extended periods without refueling. These SMRs could be fabricated and fueled in a factory, sealed and transported to sites for power generation or process heat, and then returned to the factory for defueling at the end of the life cycle. This approach could help to minimize the transportation and handling of nuclear material.  Light water-based SMRs are expected to be fueled with low enriched uranium, i.e., approximately 5 percent U-235, similar to existing large nuclear power plants. The “security by design” concepts being applied to these technologies are expected to increase SMR resistance to theft and diversion of nuclear material. Also, reactor cores for these light water SMRs can be designed to burn plutonium as a mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. Further, SMRs based on non-light water reactor coolants could be more effective at dispositioning plutonium while minimizing the wastes requiring disposal.


The case for SMR economic competitiveness is rooted in the concept that mass manufacture of modular parts and components will reduce the cost per kilowatt of electricity on par with current generating sources. There is both a domestic and international market for SMRs, and U.S. industry is well positioned to compete for these markets. DOE hopes that the development of standardized SMR designs will also result in an increased presence of U.S. companies in the global energy market. If a sufficient number of SMR units were ordered, it would provide the necessary incentive to develop the appropriate factory capacity to further grow domestic and international sales of SMR power plants. 


SMR deployment to replace retiring electricity generation assets and meet growing generating needs would result in significant growth in domestic manufacturing, tax base, and high-paying factory, construction and operating jobs. A 2010[1] study  on economic and employment impacts of SMR deployment estimated that a prototypical 100 MWe SMR costing $500 million to manufacture and install would create nearly 7,000 jobs and generate $1.3 billion in sales, $404 million in earnings (payroll), and $35 million in indirect business taxes. The report examines these impacts for multiple SMR deployment rates, i.e., low (1-2 units/year), moderate (30 units/year), high (40 units/year), and disruptive (85 units/year). The study indicates significant economic impact would be realized by developing an SMR manufacturing enterprise at even moderate deployment levels.

[1] Economic and Employment Impacts of Small Modular Reactors, June 2010, Energy Policy Institute of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies