The Big Role for Small Modular Reactors in the Energy Transition
June 6, 2023
Shafaq Hedstrom grew up in Pakistan, watching her father help build the country’s power infrastructure. “It was an early lesson in the real-life benefits that electricity brings to communities and countries and the essential role it plays,” she said.
“Energy was in my blood, so I knew I wanted to be in this industry from the beginning,” said Hedstrom, Senior Vice President for Strategy & Business Development at GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy.
She later moved to the United States, graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 2006. “At the time, California was at the forefront of the energy transition,” she said, inspiring her to join the utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), where she was “excited to be at a company that was leading the energy transition in real time.”
After nearly 16 years with the company and rising to a senior strategic planning role, she saw that California’s energy transition was heavily focused on renewables and nuclear power was not part of the dialogue on California’s energy future. This motivated her to look for an opportunity to be more proactive in ensuring nuclear power “had a seat at the [energy transition] table.”
In 2021, she moved to GE Hitachi where she works with customers and talks with energy stakeholders around the world about the important role that nuclear power – and small modular reactors (SMRs) in particular – can play in providing people and businesses with baseload electricity they need for economic development, while also addressing the urgency of energy security and climate change.
Clarity of purpose
During a recent visit to the UAE, where she spoke at the World Utilities Congress, she was impressed by the significant role nuclear is playing in the UAE and wider region’s energy mix.
“This was my first time in the UAE, and I was incredibly impressed by the vision leadership and clarity of purpose around securing a sustainable energy future, not only for the UAE, but for other countries as well. They are focused on the urgency, the sense that the world cannot wait and that we need real action and the concrete plans that go with that.”
At the conference and in her work, Hedstrom makes a particular case for SMRs, a next-generation approach to nuclear power that can be deployed in diverse settings and has a generating capacity of 300 megawatts or less.
“SMRs are the future of nuclear. They offer all the benefits of conventional nuclear but with less up-front capital, a safer and simpler design, a smaller footprint, and faster construction,” she said.
GE Hitachi’s SMR solution is the BWRX-300, a technology with innovative simplifications, a licensed and proven fuel design, and established components and supply chain. BWRX-300 plants are in deployment in Canada, the United States and Poland, with three utilities in those countries collaborating with GE Hitachi to help accelerate the deployment of the technology by investing in the design completion.
Sized for industry
“For industrial manufactures such as those producing steel or aluminum, reliable electricity is essential, making an onsite SMR ideal,” she said. Data centers looking for reliable, zero-carbon energy also are good candidates, as are remote communities and industrial facilities, such as mines, that gain access to baseload power without the need to construct expensive transmission infrastructure.
Because nuclear technology first produces heat, which is then converted into electricity, SMRs are also a good choice for district heating, desalination, and industries requiring process heat, in addition to decarbonizing the power grid.
“At a time when evolving regulations, carbon border taxes and consumer demand are likely to make zero-carbon electricity even more valuable and important, SMRs have a key role to play,” she said.
Show up. Mentor. Recruit
“In an industry that still employs many more men than women,” Hedstrom said it was “daunting to be the only female in the room in many meetings,” but she said it’s important for women leaders to “show up as role models and make sure we mentor and recruit women into the industry, even as we are transparent about our positive and negative experiences.”
“This is how more women will join the energy field,” she said.
As someone born with a passion for the energy sector, Hedstrom is working to bring more women into this important field. She’s also engaging with energy sector stakeholders and energy transition campaigners to make sure that nuclear energy is part of the conversation.
“This is important,” she said, “because the world is a diverse place, with countries, companies, and communities each requiring different solutions as part of the energy transition.” As she put it, “There is no one-size-fits-all.”
As she carries on the family tradition of building electricity capacity, Hedstrom is working to bring SMR technology to customers where nuclear power provides just the right fit.
Read more here about how GE supports customers across the Middle East, North Africa and Turkiye region to pursue energy transition goals and strategies.