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SMR Technologies in Europe: What is being done to ensure the timely implementation of this nuclear technology?

May 23, 2022

In the last few years, energy discussions in the Brussels bubble have been dominated by a perspective which overwhelmingly focused on climate. From this point of view it was clear that nuclear would play a key role in the EU. It is impossible to hit our Net Zero targets without the benefits of nuclear energy. However, in light of the recent developments in Ukraine, the conversation has shifted back to security of supply and affordability of energy prices, even if sustainability remains crucial. And there again, nuclear remains key!

The Commission is aware of nuclear’s importance. They count on at least 15% of the EU’s total energy production coming from nuclear in 2050 (as indicated by the Energy Roadmap 2050). This is an important signal, but we cannot rely on words alone. To translate the EU’s ambitions into reality, there are several factors that must be taken into consideration. On the one hand, the existing fleet needs to continue operating for as long is possible under safe conditions. On the other hand, we must accelerate the development of newer technologies that can respond to very specific use cases. For these reasons, the timely development of small modular reactors (SMRs) is crucial.

I’m happy to say that the overall signs for timely development of SMRs is positive. During a first event organised in late October 2019, the High-Level Roundtable between the Commission and the US, it became obvious that Europe needed to step up its development and deployment of SMRs. That first event was followed, on 29 June 2021, by a Commission initiative, in response to the call of the European nuclear industry led by FORATOM, and the R&D&I community: “First EU Workshop on SMRs”. This workshop demonstrated a growing interest across the EU in this technology, which continues to gain momentum world-wide. Indeed, SMRs have a strong potential to be one of the elements that can contribute to the EU’s 2050 climate targets: a decarbonised energy sector under the Green Deal, and aid the European economic recovery and industrial resilience.

A major outcome of the June 2021 EU workshop was the endorsement of a “vision paper” widely supported by the stakeholders, which included a proposal for a European SMR Partnership (known as ‘the Partnership’). This partnership would take the form of a collaboration scheme involving industrial stakeholders, research & technological organisations, interested customers (i.e., utilities and even Member States) as well as European policymakers and regulators with the aim of identifying potential constraints and creating enabling conditions for the first European SMRs starting operation in the initial years of the next decade.

The partnership would primarily focus on SMR technologies that should be available at the very beginning of next decade to play a significant role in reaching the Net Zero goal by 2050 in Europe. To ensure long-term sustainability beyond 2050, Advanced Modular Reactors based on new technologies (e.g., technologies which significantly reduce the production of radioactive waste or technologies which provide heat sources directly usable for different industrial purposes) should also be dealt within the frame of this partnership.

The launch of the partnership is preceded by the creation of a Steering Committee (SC) during a pre-partnership phase, which should give general direction in drafting and rolling out of a roadmap to facilitate the development and deployment of SMRs in Europe. In order to analyse specific issues that will enable the identification of the hurdles as well as to create the enabling conditions for the development and deployment of SMRs, a series of different workstreams have been created. They focus on market analysis, regulatory aspects, financial possibilities, the supply chain adaptation and last, but not least, I,R and D.

It should be noted that the creation of the Steering Committee is accompanied by the setting up of a stakeholders’ forum which will gather different interested parties’ representatives from civil society at large, interested Member States, the European Parliament, end users, etc. that will also contribute to the work of the partnership.

So, what is required for SMRs to become an actual contributor to Europe’s climate targets? It is clear that their use in Europe should start in the next decade (i.e., early 2030s). The use cases of SMRs can vary. Current prospects in several EU Member States show that SMRs could contribute to the replacement of retired electricity generation capacity, but they also have the potential to be used for other applications such as industrial co-generation (industrial heat), district heating, and hydrogen production.

There is a large number of SMR designs and technologies that are currently at very different stages of development in the EU and worldwide. The EU can play a key role in developing safe and competitive SMRs, with its unique experience and expertise in nuclear technology (including significant research and development capabilities). Engagement in the commercial deployment of SMR projects would prevent the loss of European industrial and research capacities in cutting-edge technology, thus decreasing risks of Europe’s strong dependence on foreign industries.

Berta Picamal

DG Office, Legal and International Relations Director

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