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Potential for small and micro modular reactors to electrify developing regions

Abstract

While small-scale nuclear power is typically thought of for niche markets, recent work has suggested that it could help address the massive gaps in energy access in developing countries. However, nuclear energy has safety, governance and economic considerations that affect its deployment. Here we present a global analysis of regions suitable for nuclear reactor deployment based on physical siting criteria, security, governance and economic competitiveness. We use high-resolution population and satellite night-time light data to identify areas in need of electricity. We show that, technically, reactors in the 1–50 MWe range could serve 70.9% of this population. However, economics alone would make microreactors uncompetitive compared with renewables and energy storage for 87% of this population. Grid extensions and small modular nuclear reactors (with more competitive economics) could electrify these populations, but governance issues could limit deployment for all but 20% of this population. Together, governance and economics eliminate 95% of the potential market for microreactors.

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Fig. 1: Geospatial analysis for the ability of MMRs and SMRs to address electricity poverty.
Fig. 2: Locations that meet basic siting criteria by reactor scale.
Fig. 3: System size needed to meet tier 5 demand for the no-light population.
Fig. 4: Number of people potentially served by MMRs of 1 MWe.
Fig. 5: Indicators of governance in countries with incomplete electrification, relative to Ukraine.
Fig. 6: Conflict events against the state in countries with high rates of electricity poverty (2016–2020).

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Data availability

Open-source datasets used in this study are publicly available and can be downloaded from their original sources for replication purposes. The underlying data behind the figures in this paper are publicly available at Figshare: Fig. 2 at https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.24802650 (ref. 75), Fig. 3 at https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.24802725 (ref. 76), Fig. 4 at https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.24803103 (ref. 77), Fig. 5 at https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.24803193 (ref. 78), Fig. 6 at https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.24803115 (ref. 79) and Supplementary Figs. 4 and 5 at https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.24803124 (ref. 80).

Code availability

The code used in this study is made available through GitHub at https://github.com/glher/GANS24 (ref. 81).

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported in part by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission integrated university grant programme under grant 31310018M0011.

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G.F.L. and M.R.D. conceived the study and designed the model and the computational framework. G.F.L. carried out the implementation, performed the calculations and analysed the data. G.F.L., M.R.D. and R.S.K. wrote the manuscript. M.D.B. advised on the manuscript. M.R.D. was in charge of overall direction and planning.

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Correspondence to M. R. Deinert.

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L’Her, G.F., Kemp, R.S., Bazilian, M.D. et al. Potential for small and micro modular reactors to electrify developing regions. Nat Energy 9, 725–734 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-024-01512-y

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