by Will Davis
I was intrigued this morning to read that StarCore Nuclear, a startup in Canada that’s focusing on small, independent nuclear plants to provide a spectrum product (power, water, heat) had been – it is reported – in negotiation to provide an African nation with not less than twenty-three nuclear plants. This audacious plan at first brush sounds incredible, but it’s in the details that the wisdom is found and, in fact, perhaps the model for Small Modular Reactors (SMR’s) to really break through into the world’s broader market for power.
A NATION IN NEED
Nigeria, the nation with whom StarCore is said to be negotiating, has a very serious energy problem; according to a 2015 PriceWaterhouse Coopers report less than half of Nigeria’s population had access to the nation’s electric grid. After implying that the nation is generating about a third of what it really needs in electric power, the report also noted that most of Nigeria’s electric power comes from fossil fuels. For several years now, it’s been the policy of Nigeria’s Ministry of Energy to pursue the development of all forms of power generation, including nuclear. The advantage of nuclear, of course, is that it’s emission free – but it has definite hurdles that Nigeria would have to leap in order for it to become a significant energy (or resource) producer nationally.
STARCORE OFFERS TURNKEY SOLUTION
Nigeria need not worry about indigenously developing a nuclear power infrastructure in the way that the UAE has, if it selects the sort of option that StarCore Nuclear has been offering to Canadian oil field producers. The company’s offering, which incorporates a pebble-bed High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactor (HTGR), is not simply a power plant itself but rather a complete spectrum product provider that Nigeria can simply plug in if it installs a number of islanded small “microgrids” to distribute power, clean water and even heat to homes and industries that need it. A few of the StarCore business aspects are herein noted:
•B-O-O or Build-Own-Operate. Under the StarCore plan (as has been discussed for a number of SMR’s in the past) the nuclear plants will be built, owned and operated by StarCore itself. The nation in which the plants are installed does not need to set up an operating regime for the plants; this will be done by StarCore, with some personnel at the plant and other functions being handled remotely by satellite. Considering the delay now experienced in the UAE because the development of the operating staff of the plant at Barakah is not complete, this single aspect may help to make the sale since plants could reasonably be expected to avoid such a delay if the B-O-O plan is employed.
•Microgrids vs. National Grid. StarCore’s plant is designed to provide flexible power on islanded grids – it load follows, and is intended for operation on a grid where it’s the only major power source. The employment of numerous microgrids around the nation would greatly simplify the distribution problem since balancing of generating assets and transients would be completely avoided on a large scale. It might also prove out that the overall distribution infrastructure expenditure would be greatly reduced without having to design and construct a national system.
•Cleanliness. Since the StarCore concept includes completely removing the reactor vessel and pebble bed fuel after five years of operation (with these components being returned to StarCore) there would be no spent fuel for Nigeria to consider placing or protecting. Further, since the plants are helium cooled high temperature reactors there’s absolutely no risk of tritium getting into ground water. Finally, even thermal pollution would be absolutely minimal since the plants are independently cooled (needing no river, reservoir or ocean water for operation.)
Now, to be fair, there have been concerns in some quarters about the Build-Own-Operate scheme. This plan means that the reactor vendor itself owns and operates the power plants; it’s given license or lease on land in order to do this. The plants are constructed contingent upon purchasing agreements in the hosting nation, whether they be for electricity generated by the plant, or desalinated water, or process heat; it’s these agreements that fund the construction and operation of the plant (or, more specifically, allow the vendor to pay back the loans used to build the plant and then to continue to operate and, eventually, decommission it when that day comes.) What’s been a sticking point for some in this case is the ability of a national regulator to have enough influence over the operator to ensure plant safety and/or prevent misappropriation of nuclear materials. StarCore is on record as saying (on its site) that the plants it intends to build are not only inherently safe operationally (shutting down on overheat naturally) but also safe from physical security and proliferation standpoints.
NOT A GUARANTEE, BUT A HOPE
The discussions reported in the Nigerian press are just that – discussions. They presently aren’t anywhere close to sales and so in that light it may be early to look to the horizon for a new dawn. However, just the fact that a large nation is interested in and discussing a fleet of distributed, non-interconnected Gen-IV nuclear plants to run microgrids across its vast terrain is a sign that the SMR is moving conceptually toward something more than just a dotted, here-or-there application in a few perfect spots. It may indeed be that a fleet of duplicate advanced nuclear plants not intended to operate with each other electrically but simply as a fleet of independents could prove to be the most economic and rapid scheme to convert a nation from energy poverty to energy prosperity via nuclear energy. I hope so, and I think it’s an idea worth watching for most of us and worth actively pursuing for those few of us able.
Will Davis is a member of the Board of Directors for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. He is a consultant to the Global America Business Institute, a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and he writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is also a consultant and writer for the American Nuclear Society, and serves on the ANS Communications Committee and the Book Publishing Committee. He is a former U.S. Navy reactor operator and served on SSBN-641, USS Simon Bolivar. His popular Twitter account, @atomicnews is mostly devoted to nuclear energy.