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Report Highlights Opportunities, Challenges for Microreactors

A new report from the Idaho National Laboratory details opportunities and barriers for the deployment of microreactors.

The report, Microreactor Applications in U.S. Markets, summarizes a Department of Energy microreactor program analysis of the market opportunities for microreactors and includes state-level legal, regulatory, economic and technology implications for microreactor applications in the United States, with a particular focus on Alaska and Wyoming.

Microreactors, a subset of small modular nuclear reactors, have approximate power output in the one to 10s of megawatts range. Microreactor designs are suited for remote industrial applications, such as seafood processing in Alaska and trona mineral mining in Wyoming, as most designs can be factory built and transported relatively easily.

“Alaska and Wyoming have their own niche markets, but there is commonality in the remoteness of the applications, mobile uses for microreactors in mining, and energy use for refined products derived from mined sources,” David Shropshire, an Idaho National Laboratory nuclear energy economist and one of the authors of the report, said in a statement.

The report includes an analysis to understand the economic sizing of an individual microreactor units at energy-intensive candidate sites, as well as a state-by-state review of current nuclear power carbon dioxide mitigation policies.

Among sites favorable for microreactors, the report identified retired coal-fired power plants with existing infrastructure already in place and areas where transportation costs are very high and subject to access weather related restrictions for portions of the year.

The report found that most states have either removed barriers for microreactor deployment or established carbon dioxide-reduction goals that make advanced nuclear technologies attractive. For example, the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act promotes continued generation from the existing nuclear fleet and provides credits for new, advanced nuclear deployments.

Nonetheless, the report’s authors said, challenges remain, including perceptions about microreactors’ uncertainties in terms of costs, waste and fuel management. They suggested that the nuclear industry and national labs increase communications about the technology and create a clear differentiation between microreactors, small modular reactors, and large reactors. They also recommended that studies should be conducted that compare costs between microreactors and other comparable low-carbon dioxide emitting energy sources that would differentiate microreactors from the high cost of large nuclear reactors.

More research is needed, the report’s authors said, particularly in the development of a deeper analysis of public acceptance and resistance related to microreactors, further evaluation of potential markets for microreactors, and evaluation of cross jurisdictional regulatory considerations for land use, siting, carbon reduction, and transmission corridors.