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First Small Modular Nuclear Reactor approved for use in the USA

The first small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) in the United States should be operational by the end of this decade. The country’s nuclear regulator has just certified NuScale Power Corp’s SMR design, marking an important step towards developing these next-generation power plants, which some say could be used to provide sustainable power for data centers.

After receiving approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), NuScale plans to build an SMR plant at Idaho National Laboratory. The company says its six-reactor, 462 MW carbon-free power project should be operational by 2030.

SMRs typically produce 300-500 megawatts (MW) of electricity, but some produce less than 100 MW. While any nuclear reactor raises public concerns, these plants are said to pose much less risk than conventional facilities due to their size, simple design and inherent safety features of the reactor. They also rely on natural circulation, convection, gravity and self-pressurization, all of which have led experts to cite SMRs as a way to sustain data centre growth.

Nuclear waste remains an issue for SMRs – it can take between 30 and 24,000 years for spent fuel material to reach safe radiation levels. However, unlike conventional nuclear power plants, which require fuel changes every two years, SMR suppliers are aiming for fuel changes every three to seven years. Some designs are estimated to operate for 40 years without refueling.

The NRC’s approval means that SMR is now the seventh reactor design approved for use in the United States. “SMRs are no longer an abstract concept,” said Kathryn Huff, assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the Department of Energy. “They are real and, thanks to the hard work of NuScale, the university community, our national laboratories, industry partners and the NRC, they are ready to be deployed.”

NuScale has also applied to the NRC for approval of a larger SMR design that could produce 77 megawatts of power per module.

President Joe Biden’s administration and Republican lawmakers support SMRs, saying they are important to help combat climate change because these plants offer an alternative to fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases. Since 2014, the US Department of Energy has provided more than $600 million in funding to the project.

Russia has two SMRs, each capable of producing 35MW, located in a floating power plant off the Arctic coast (pictured above). New SMRs are currently being built or licensed in Argentina, Canada, China, France, South Korea and the UK, with Rolls-Royce aiming to bring its first reactor online by 2029. The company is also looking to build SMRs in Romania, Kazakhstan and Poland, although building in the region is a concern for nuclear safety experts in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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