05 Nov 2020, 14:08
Benjamin Wehrmann

German nuclear industry cautious about usefulness of small reactors for energy transition

Süddeutsche Zeitung

Small Modular Reactors (SMR) are increasingly hailed as an effective way for using nuclear power to curb the climate crisis without the major risks associated with conventional nuclear plants, but Germany's nuclear industry is sceptical whether the small reactors really can help boost international climate action, Christian J. Meier writes for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. While conventional reactors are often very expensive to build and operate, SMRs would drastically cut construction time and, according to their developers, also reduce costs through a much simpler design. US company Nuscale says an SMR it is currently constructing could produce power at a price comparable to that of natural gas. Moreover, SMRs can be operated much more flexibly than conventional reactors and can thus provide backup capacity for power systems dominated by intermittent renewable energy sources, Meier writes. However, Nicolas Wendler of industry association Nuclear Technology Germany (KernD) says SMRs are always going to be more expensive than bigger reactors due to lower power output at constant fixed costs, as safety measures and staffing requirements do not vary greatly compared to conventional reactors. "In terms of levelised energy costs, SMRs will always be more expensive than big plants." In order for SMRs to be profitable, these should run at maximum utilisation most of the time, Wendler argues, concluding that the potential on the German market would not be much greater than what is needed to adjust oscillating renewable power production.

Irrespective of calls among some climate activists to consider using nuclear power as a more climate-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, Germany stands by its plans to completely phase-out the technology from its energy system by the end of 2022. Moreover, nuclear power plant owners have repeatedly rejected the idea that the nuclear exit be reversed, arguing the technology is no longer economically viable anyway. As the country is also set to phase out coal fired-power production, some officials have said Germany might at least for some time rely on power imports from neighbouring countries using both nuclear and coal power.

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