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Nuclear Steel Could Save 2 Billion Tonnes Of Emissions Each Year
NuScale & Nucor could change the world.
The climate impact of the steel industry is astronomical, producing over 2.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, or 7% of humanity's annual carbon emissions. These vast pollutants come from the extreme energy demands of smelting ore and scrap, and as such, the industry is struggling to find a way to be more planet-friendly. But a US steelmaker, Nucor, is looking to team up with the Small Modular Reactor (SMR) nuclear power pioneer NuScale to create ultra-low emission nuclear steel mills! But how? And can this really help the steel industry reach net zero?
Smelting is the process of removing the metal you want, in this case, iron (which will later be turned to steel), from ore or scrap metal. This involves heating the ore/scrap past iron’s melting point in a furnace, which is 1800 °C (3270 °F). This molten metal is allowed to flow out and solidify to form pig iron. Pig iron contains around 20% carbon, making it incredibly low-quality. To turn it into steel, the pig iron is heated back up to the melting point in an oxygen-rich environment, and the carbon inside the pig iron reacts with the oxygen, forming carbon dioxide which is removed, leaving a much purer form of iron known as steel.
This two-stage furnace process requires a vast amount of energy, pretty much 24/7, as these plants don’t really close down. This is why the industry has such a vast carbon footprint. Let me explain.
There are electric-powered furnaces out there, such as arc furnaces and induction furnaces. So, why can’t they switch to renewable power? Well, these furnaces require so much power that they either need on-site power plants or to be built near power plants, as the grid can’t handle their energy demands. The problem is that steel mills have a lifespan on the order of decades, and the vast majority of them weren’t built with renewables in mind, making it impractical for them to switch to renewable power, as many don’t have enough space nearby to install solar or wind power. But, as the profit margins are incredibly tiny for steelmakers, the cost of this energy is crucial. Simply, they can’t afford to use cleaner, more expensive energy, like geothermal or nuclear, which can cost way north of $100 per MWh. So, they reach for the cheapest practical power solution, which just so happens to be coal, the dirtiest power out there.
This is why the vast majority of steelmakers cut out the middleman and just use coal-fire-powered blast furnaces and don’t muck around with electricity.
But this is where NuScale comes in, as their VOYGR SMR technology has the potential to solve the power problems of the steel industry.
But first, what is an SMR? A small modular reactor is a new design of nuclear power plant that mitigates some major drawbacks of current reactor designs.
You see, most modern nuclear power plants consist of several large and pretty much custom-built reactors that need to be painstakingly built on-site. This dramatically increases the cost of building a nuclear power plant, which in turn drives up the price of nuclear energy, and means it can take well over a decade to build one.
SMRs, by contrast, use tens of small modular reactors working together to make a power plant. These reactors are so small they can be built in a single off-site factory at scale and then shipped to the power plant site to be installed. This dramatically reduces the complexity of manufacturing and setting up the reactors and enables the economies of scale to kick in (as one reactor factory can build enough reactors for hundreds of sites). As such, SMRs promise to be far cheaper and far quicker to build. They are also far more flexible, as you only need to order the number of reactors that you need.
This is why it is fascinating that NuScale has signed a memorandum of understanding with North American steel manufacturer Nucor to explore the deployment of NuScale’s VOYGR SMR power plants at Nucor’s scrap Electric Arc Furnace steel mills. This means that the companies will assess site suitability and economies of using NuScale plants to be sited near and provide ultra-low carbon electricity (as nuclear is the lowest carbon form of energy we have) to Nucor steel mills.
You see, right now, there are no SMRs on the market, and NuScale’s VOYGR SMRs are set to be the first to get regulated for use in the US. What’s more, they have a project cost per MWh of $89, putting them on par with US coal energy which costs $88 per MWh.
Nucor’s scrap Electric Arc Furnace steel mills are only single-stage, meaning they don’t produce pig iron from ore and instead smelt scrap metal to form a higher quality metal. This means they use less energy per kg of steel produced, and so even if NuScale’s predicted cost per MWh rises (which has already happened), they can stomach it. What’s more, they only need a handful of NuScale’s VOYGR SMRs to power their mills, meaning that building these nearby power plants should be cost-effective and only take a few years to complete. The VOYGR SMRs are also incredibly compact, meaning it should be straightforward for Nucor to find the space to install them near their mills.
So if a deal with Nucor and NuScale goes ahead, how big of an impact will it have? Well, Nucor only produces around 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, so in terms of emissions, they are a tiny player in the steel world. So, even if Nucor fully adopted NuScale as a power source, it will have and minuscule overall impact.
But, if NuScale and Nucor can prove that SMR technology and steel mills can work hand in hand, they have the potential to demonstrate to the world how to decarbonise one of the planet’s most polluting industries. There are other issues to sort out here, like ensuring safety, increasing nuclear fuel production and managing the extra nuclear waste that will come from these reactors. However, all of these have already proven practical solutions. So don’t be surprised if, in a decade or so, the steel industry has gone nuclear.