small reactors want to make a place for themselves

small reactors want to make a place for themselves
small reactors want to make a place for themselves

There are already around ten of them on the starting line, after having received financial support from the State, to develop small nuclear reactors, called modular (SMR, i.e. small modular reactor, according to the English acronym), which can be partly prefabricated in the factory. Not everyone will undoubtedly reach the end, but they all have the same conviction: the world will not be able to do without nuclear power if it wants to drastically reduce its CO emissions.2.

The sector is now in the midst of a renaissance. In Europe, a “Nuclear Alliance” was created at the initiative of France, which considered that the Brussels Commission was demonstrating“ostracism” with regard to the atom. In the United States, billionaires are investing heavily in research, like Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, despite initial cost and schedule slippages. The idea is to build models ten to a hundred times less powerful than current large reactors, but very innovative. Those said to “fourth generation” would thus be supplied by waste from the existing park. In total, around 70 SMR projects are under study around the world.

This is the big change. “Start-ups come to us offering technologies that we sometimes don’t even know about and for new uses of nuclear power, such as heat production,” explained Bernard Doroszczuk, president of the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) during a Senate hearing in January.

Powering industrial sites

This is the case, for example, of Jimmy Energy which filed, on April 29, with the government a request for authorization to create (DAC) a 10 MW mini-reactor intended for the Cristal Union sugar factory in Bazancourt ( Marne), a site which is one of the 50 largest emitters of greenhouse gases in France. “Industrial heat is the missing link in decarbonization. Our goal is to replace gas with nuclear power,” explains Antoine Guyot, the CEO of Jimmy Energy, a young 30-year-old polytechnician.

In February, the company announced the creation of an industrial platform in Le Creusot to assemble the components of its high-temperature helium-cooled reactor, a large 20 m box.3which would only need to be recharged every ten years.

For its part, Naarea, which designed a small reactor burning plutonium and long-lived waste, signed an industrial partnership in November with the battery manufacturer ACC, for its giant factory under construction in Pas-de-Calais.

Regulatory barriers and social acceptability

“Many start-ups are in the process of raising funds and therefore need to tell great stories to investors. But we are the most experienced, the most advanced and the only ones to be supported by an industrial group,” For his part, assures Raphaël Gorgé, the boss of the Gorgé family group, specializing in robotics. He launched Calogena, a small reactor to heat cities, of comparable size, according to him, “to the 200 research reactors already established in urban areas around the world”. A first installation site should be announced in 2025 for commissioning in 2030.

“By offering carbon-free and controllable energy, with standardized manufacturing processes, the promise of SMRs is very attractive on paper. But the validation of concepts by safety authorities is the hardest obstacle to overcome, even more so than questions of social acceptability,” estimates Jérémie Haddad, partner at EY and author of a study on SMRs. According to him, between 40 and 60 could be installed around the world by 2035 and between 250 and 350 in 2045.

The examination of the projects is therefore likely to take a little time, even if in Europe, the idea of ​​certification common to several countries is starting to gain ground, like what is already being done for aircraft. EDF, which is developing Nuward, a small reactor (170 MW) with TechnicAtome, the designer of nuclear propulsion for the French Navy, began discussions last year with French, Czech and Finnish regulators.

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