Even if most new nuclear power plants planned - or currently under construction - are large, light water-cooled units, small modular reactors (SMRs) represent a complementary solution to such power plants. They would contribute to the decarbonisation of hard to decarbonise sectors such as transport, chemical and steel industry, and district heating.
They comprise the latest technological features and safety advantages and many companies, and start-ups in Europe and outside of Europe, are looking into SMR projects.
SMRs can vary in size from less than 10 megawatts electric (MWe) up to 300 MWe and can use a range of possible coolants including light water, liquid metal or molten salt, depending on the technology. SMR is the generic term to name such kinds of reactors, but the ones based on non-light water technology are also often called advanced modular reactors (AMRs). They all use nuclear fission reactions to generate heat that can be used directly or for generating electricity.
The Commission’s priority is that the new SMRs/AMRs designs under development ensure that nuclear energy is used only with the highest standards of safety, radiation protection for workers and citizens, responsible management of radioactive waste and spent fuel, and a reliable non-proliferation regime, which ensures that nuclear material is not diverted from its intended use.
Benefits and challenges
SMRs present several potential benefits, ranging from improved safety features, such as passive safety systems, better financing options due to reduced construction schedules, lower investment needs, fewer components and smaller plant footprints per unit. For EU countries which choose to include nuclear in their energy mix, SMRs could also be a promising option for replacing old coal power plants and complementing as well as facilitating the increasing penetration of renewables. They can be flexibly used for district heating, desalination, generation of process heat for energy-intensive industries and production of hydrogen.
At the same time, challenges still exist in validating the business case for SMRs, assuring predictable and streamlined licensing processes and frameworks, developing global supply chains to ensure profitability, identifying suitable nuclear sites and achieving a transparent dialogue model between the concerned stakeholders.
EU leadership and strategic independence for SMRs
On 29 June 2021, to reply to the EU industry’s call on the European Commission organised the first EU workshop on small modular reactors. EU policymakers and industrial, regulatory, and financial actors successfully debated on industrial cooperation, regulatory and licensing processes, financing and research and development support – all needed for a sustainable SMR deployment and secure supply chain to support decarbonisation.
European SMR Partnership
One of the most important outcomes of this workshop was the proposal from all stakeholders for the creation of a ‘European SMR Partnership’ in the form of a collaboration scheme involving industry stakeholders, research and technological organisations, interested customers (that is utilities and even EU countries), European regulators and the European Commission.
The Partnership preparation is led by a Steering Committee supported by five work streams essential for the SMR technology outlook, and safe deployment in the EU, that is:
- market integration and deployment
- financing and partnership
- supply chain adaptation
- innovation, research and development
All these stakeholders from the European nuclear industry, research community and national nuclear regulators have been closely collaborating since the beginning of 2022 with the objective of the first European SMRs becoming operational at the start of the next decade.
The Commission is closely associated (as a facilitator) with the initiative and the launch is planned before the end of 2023.
Research and training on SMRs
The Commission has also actively supported SMR safety research via the Euratom Research and Training Programme, with an EU contribution of EUR 16 million. New projects for SMRs and advanced modular reactors, with a total budget of EUR 27 million will complement this action already in 2023.
The declaration on EU small modular reactors, signed on 4 April 2023 by the Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel and EU nuclear stakeholders, was prepared as a follow-up to a high-level European nuclear roundtable, held in March 2022. It confirms the EU’s intention to continue to lead research, innovation, education and training for the safety of European SMRs.
International cooperation and events
The EU and the United States share a rich history of mutually beneficial cooperation on nuclear energy and an EU-US high-level forum on SMRs was organised in Brussels in 2019 to examine the challenges and opportunities associated with using SMR technologies, as part of the future energy systems.
To ensure coherence and complementarity of the efforts, the Commission is also maintaining close links with the new IAEA ‘Nuclear Harmonisation and Standardisation Initiative (NHSI)’ and with other relevant initiatives at the level of the OECD-NEA, like the recently published SMR Dashboard.
- Declaration on EU Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) 2030: Research & Innovation, Education & Training (April 2023)
- Conclusions from the second high-level nuclear roundtable (15 March 2022)
- First EU Workshop on Small Modular Reactors (29 June 2021)
- EU-US high-level forum on small modular reactors (21 October 2019)
- The SMR Platform and Nuclear Harmonization and Standardization Initiative (NHSI), IAEA
- The NEA Small Modular Reactor Dashboard, NEA, OECD
- European SMR pre-Partnership, nucleareurope