The next big thing in nuclear power just might be small – Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), that is. The global buzz about these smaller, more advanced reactors with improved safety characteristics has reached Taiwan. The question is, would it be enough to convince the Taiwanese to give nuclear energy another chance?
“The inherent safety features of SMRs mean that a second Fukushima is not possible,” says Yeh Tsung-kuang, a professor at National Tsing Hua University’s Department of Engineering and System Science. “This means a lot of people who were previously anti-nuclear feel like it could be an acceptable part of the energy transition.”
In the wake of the Tohoku tsunami in 2011, the emergency diesel generators at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were flooded. The water caused an ensuing catastrophe as coolants could not be pumped to the overheated core. SMRs, on the other hand, are designed to “fail to safe,” shutting themselves down in the case of malfunction without external intervention.
As an export-oriented economy, it’s unsurprising that more than half of Taiwan’s electricity is produced for industrial use. In turn, manufacturers are the most anxious group when it comes to supply stability for Taiwan’s grid. Late last year, Robert Tsao, the retired founder of United Microelectronics Corporation, Taiwan’s second-biggest chipmaker, came out publicly in favor of building SMRs in Taiwan’s power-hungry industrial parks.
“It’s a lot of trouble to build a big, conventional nuclear power reactor,” Tsao said in a media interview. “But you can build an SMR in Hsinchu [Science Park], another in Tainan [Science Park]. The buildings will be smaller in size, and there will not be the same kind of objections from nearby residents.”
Yeh adds that apart from energy sufficiency fears, Taiwanese manufacturers are even more concerned about plans by the EU to implement a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), as they fear that their goods will no longer be in demand if they can’t access low-carbon power.
“Globally, we are seeing the trend of carbon being taxed more heavily,” says Yeh. “So far, the government of Taiwan does not have a good solution for providing Taiwan with enough low-carbon energy.”
What makes SMRs “modular” is the fact that their components are designed to be mass-produced in a factory setting. The proponents of SMRs say that by applying standardized production of many small components rather than huge components that must be custom-made, SMRs will be cheaper and faster to construct.
In addition to speed, SMRs also offer more flexibility compared to traditional large reactors.
“You can think of each ‘module’ like a battery and simply add more in series if you need more power,” says Yeh. SMRs can also be located next to factories, enabling manufacturers to transport the heat directly from a reactor for industrial applications rather than producing electricity first, an option not offered by traditional nuclear reactors.
Traditionally, support for nuclear energy in Taiwan has broken along partisan lines, with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) staunchly anti-nuclear while the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) is in favor. However, with Taiwan falling behind on decarbonization goals and even facing a potential power crunch, Yeh says interest in SMRs from the “Green” (or pro-DPP) side has been strong. The fact that so many countries around the world, including China, France, Korea, Russia, and the U.S., are all developing SMRs has changed some people’s minds. The EU’s inclusion of nuclear energy in its Green Taxonomy is also an influential factor.
“Over the past year, I’ve fielded many media interviews from pan-Green outlets, and a number of DPP legislators have also requested off-the-record meetings about this issue,” says Yeh. “Some have even spoken out in public about this issue.”
In a briefing at the legislature about Taiwan’s net zero ambitions by Academia Sinica, DPP legislator Chen Hsiu-pao expressed curiosity about SMRs.
“Net zero 2050 is our goal, and we are on the way to decommissioning existing nuclear power plants, but we hear voices in the industry promoting SMRs as a transitional means of power production,” said Chen. “With neighboring countries developing technology, we should also be keeping an eye on it.”
But despite sporadic interest, Taiwan is still slated to phase out nuclear energy completely in 2025. Currently, three reactors – all legacy projects commissioned in the 1980s – are in operation, providing approximately 10% of Taiwan’s electricity.
“Unfortunately, President Tsai campaigned on the ‘no-nuclear homeland’ policy, and it’s very unlikely she would reverse it in the last years of her second term,” says Yeh. “Any policy changes will have to wait until after she steps down in 2024.”
Not everyone agrees that SMRs are the right approach if Taiwan chooses to return to nuclear power. Retired Plant Manager of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant at Longmen, Wang Bo-hui, thinks that it is more practical for Taiwan to extend the life of existing nuclear reactors and to restart the mothballed Longmen powerplant, which has never produced a single kilowatt of electricity.
“There is not a functional SMR anywhere for us to observe; they are all still PowerPoint reactors at this point,” says Wang. “It’s more practical for us to use the power plants we already built.”
Even if Taiwan were to build new reactors, smaller is not necessarily better, Wang adds.
“There are a lot of inevitable costs when it comes to building a nuclear reactor, such as siting and consent,” he says. “If you are going to go through all that, why not build one that can make the maximum power?”