The slow-moving small modular reactor (SMR) market saw some positive activity in recent weeks, even as one expert predicted the technology would never achieve commercialization. 

Earlier this month, the World Nuclear Association reported that Ukraine had signed a memorandum of understanding with SMR developer Holtec International, aiming to turn the Eastern European nation into a manufacturing hub for Holtec’s SMR-160 reactors. 

The Association said Holtec is planning a Ukrainian manufacturing plant to allow for partial localization of its 160-megawatt SMRs, so Ukraine’s nuclear operator Energoatom can use the design to replace two aging Russian VVER-440 reactors at its Rivne nuclear power plant. 

The news came a week after the government of Canada announced a road-mapping exercise to explore the potential of SMRs in the country.

“The road map will be an important step in positioning Canada to advance next-generation technologies and become a global leader in the emerging SMR market,” said Natural Resources Canada, a federal institution.

This was welcome news for a technology that has been slow to achieve commercialization -- and which some believe might never take off.

In the December 2017 edition of the National University of Singapore’s Energy Studies Institute Bulletin, for example, Canadian academic Professor M.V. Ramana provided a detailed argument for why SMRs could never be a viable technology. 

Nuclear plants in general require high levels of capital, he noted, and high construction costs mean the electricity they provide ends up being more expensive than coal, gas and, more recently, wind and solar.  

SMRs may be able to overcome the first problem, said Ramana, who is a professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Public Policy and Global Affairs. 

But SMRs could end up with even higher energy costs because the smaller reactors can't take advantage of economies of scale unless they're manufactured “by the thousands, even under very optimistic assumptions about rates of learning.”

Experience indicates such rates of learning may be rare in the nuclear industry. In France and the U.S., according to Ramana, reactor construction costs have historically risen rather than falling. 

Also, mass production would need the industry to settle on a single SMR design. As of 2016 there were 48 listed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Finally, said Ramana, for all the interest in SMRs, no country has yet got behind the technology enough for it to be commercialized. This likely indicates demand for the reactors is not as solid as proponents imagine.

“SMRs seem appealing to many countries at first sight,” Ramana told GTM. “But once they get into the actual nitty gritty of planning an SMR project, they realize that there are numerous problems. 

“Economics are a significant challenge, as is the problem of finding sites to construct the many units that would have to replace a single nuclear reactor.”

Edward Kee, principal consultant at the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Economics Consulting Group, admitted Ramana “makes some valid points…with a negative spin."

“There is no doubt that a small nuclear power plant will have costs that are higher than the costs of a similar reactor of a larger size. These economies of scale apply to such things as staffing, nuclear regulatory approvals and equipment," said Kee.

However, he said, the magnitude of this cost penalty is hard to gauge without building an SMR. Furthermore, since many SMRs are designed to be safer than larger designs, there may be savings on safety requirements.

Another nuclear expert said the vast array of SMR prototypes won't hinder commercialization, as markets will naturally select the best options. 

“SMRs will broaden the number of applications to which nuclear technologies can be applied, as well as offering advantages in some situations in terms of financing," said Dr. Jonathan Cobb, senior communication manager at the World Nuclear Association.

Along with Canada and the Ukraine, there is still significant interest in SMRs in Brazil, China, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S., said Cobb.

“With more than 60 percent of global electricity generation still coming from fossil fuels, and a recognition that there needs to be substantial decarbonization of electricity generation, there is a massive market for all types of low-carbon generation,” he said.