New nuclear technology collaboration

2023-10-31

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are expected to play an important role in the energy system of the future. This nuclear technology is also the focus of the national competence centre ANItA, which is led from Uppsala University. After a start-up phase, the initial fourteen projects are now under way. “Bringing together resources from industry and academia has far-reaching benefits,” says Ane Håkansson, professor of applied nuclear physics and Director of ANItA.

Sophie Grape and Ane Håkansson
The Swedish competence centre for new nuclear technology ANItA started in 2022 and is led by Ane Håkansson, Professor of Applied Nuclear Physics. In the foreground his colleague and senior lecturer Sophie Grape. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

The goal of the competence centre is to develop a strategy for how small modular reactors could be introduced in Sweden. The technology already exists in around 70 different reactor types, most of which generate output power of up to roughly 300 megawatts, compared to the output power of conventional reactors of up to 1500 megawatts.

But SMRs have an advantage. They can be mass-produced in a factory, type approved, and positioned close to consumers of the power, for example, to supplement a district heating system on demand, says Ane Håkansson.

“The physical size of these small reactors is much like that of current urban thermal power plants.”

At ANItA, the fourteen projects are now under way and staffed primarily by doctoral students, postdocs, and supervisors and researchers from academia and industry. ANItA’s focus is on both the technical and non-technical aspects of new nuclear technology.

“We are looking at a wide range of applications for the technology, even beyond electricity production, such as hydrogen production and district heating, as well as nuclear fuel technology, project and financing strategies, and dimensioning of the reactor core, operation, etc. In addition, we have projects on non-proliferation, security analysis and materials issues,” says Ane Håkansson.

Rapid development

At present, four postdocs and six doctoral students are involved in the projects. And three additional postdoctoral fellowships will soon be advertised. Most of the projects started in the summer of 2023 and therefore have not progressed far yet. However, the rapid development since the projects were defined has enabled some adjustments which, according to Ane Håkansson, have better captured what needs they now see ahead of them.

The light-water technology used in SMRs is based on similar technology to that in today’s reactors. But the safety system is different due to the use of passive cooling, which means that the reactor can cool itself in the event of an incident. Furthermore, SMRs can be placed underground or in rock caverns to protect them from external attack, explains Ane Håkansson. In addition, they do not need to be recharged with new nuclear fuel as often as a conventional nuclear power plant.

Image of Sweden from space, with small lights everywhere.
Various applications of nuclear technology in the energy system are being studied within ANItA such as electricity production, district heating, transport and hydrogen production.

“The research and development projects done at the participating universities over many years are all important pieces of the puzzle that could enable the introduction of SMRs in Sweden in the most effective way possible.”

He sees this work as the foundation for supplying the skills that are now so important in the field.

“There is currently a big shortage of trained people in nuclear technology and to enable a new nuclear programme in Sweden, a lot of resources must be invested on the education side.”

Multidisciplinary collaboration

Uppsala University’s research contributions to ANItA involve nuclear safeguards, nuclear data, the law and industrial engineering, and in collaboration with researchers at Chalmers also materials engineering. KTH Royal Institute of Technology is specifically contributing safety analyses and water chemistry, and Chalmers is contributing systems analysis and nuclear fuel materials.

All activities within ANItA is being conducted in collaboration with industry partner specialists. The energy companies Vattenfall, Uniper and Finnish Fortum are partners in the centre, along with the specialist companies Westinghouse and Studsvik Nuclear. Some of these collaborations have existed for decades, but with the Swedish Energy Agency’s focus on competence centres, the structure for them has now been established. The funding for the centre is evenly shared between academia, companies and the public sector.

“Now that we have brought together Sweden’s academic and industrial expertise in nuclear technology, I hope ANItA can develop into a source of knowledge for the society at large, and not only those in power and the media, but also municipalities, major industries and the general public. They have the user perspective and they are of course also important actors,” says Ane Håkansson.

Anneli Björkman

The competence centre ANItA

The Academic-industrial Nuclear technology Initiative to Achieve a sustainable energy future (ANItA) is part of the Swedish Energy Agency’s investment in competence centres in the area of sustainable energy systems during the period 2022–2026. Uppsala University hosts ANItA, with Chalmers University of Technology and KTH Royal Institute of Technology as co-applicants. In addition to nuclear technology, each centre’s work includes licensing and regulatory aspects, as well as questions concerning the impact of introducing new nuclear power technologies on the techno-economic strategies of industry and the community more broadly.

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