The Big Problem With Small Modular Reactors

IN RECENT YEARS, the nuclear power lobby and its advocates have begun to sing a new song. They have bailed on the monstrous reactors of the 20th century — not because of safety or toxic waste concerns, but because of the reactors’ exorbitant expense and ponderous rollout schedules. And they have switched their allegiance to a next generation nuclear fission technology: small modular reactors, which they claim will help rescue our warming planet, as well as the nuclear power industry— once they exist.

Currently, half of the states in the EU, both major political parties in the U.S, and the five BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — have indicated that they want to split atoms for the purpose of generating energy. U.S. President Joe Biden included billions of dollars in tax credits for nuclear energy in the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Gates has gone so far as to invest a chunk of his fortune in a firm he founded, TerraPower, a leading nuclear innovation company. But despite the prodigious chatter, the endeavor to blanket the Earth with SMRs is a Hail Mary pass that’s very unlikely to succeed.

Granted, it is certainly a step in the right direction that most observers now see the postwar, giga-watt-scale water-cooled reactors as obsolete. When constructed new, these behemoths generate electricity at up to nine times the cost of large-scale solar and onshore wind facilities, and can take well over a decade to get up and running. Perhaps for this reason, there has been one, and only one, new nuclear power project initiated in the U.S. since construction began on the last one 50 years ago: a two-reactor expansion of the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia. The first of the reactors came online this yearseven years behind schedule. The staggering $35 billion cost for the pair is more than twice the original projection.

But SMRs are just as likely to face similar delays and cost overruns. Currently, there are just two existing advanced SMR facilities in the world that could be reasonably described as SMRs: a pilot reactor in China and Russia’s diminutive Akademik Lomonosov. More small reactors are under construction in China, Russia, and Argentina, but all of them are proving even more expensive per kilowatt than traditional reactors.

It’s worth noting that in the U.S., and everywhere else in the world, nuclear policy relies heavily on subsidies to be economically competitive. Starting next year, utilities operating nuclear facilities in the U.S. can qualify for a tax credit of $15 per megawatt-hour — a break that could be worth up to $30 billion for the industry as a whole. However, even these giveaways won’t reduce the projected costs of SMR-generated electricity to anywhere near the going prices of wind and solar power.

In the U.S., the only SMR developer with a design approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is NuScale, which plans to deploy six modules at one site in Idaho that will together generate less electricity than a smallish standard nuclear reactor. So far, however, NuScale has yet to lay a single brick. Its biggest win to date is securing $4 billion in federal tax subsidies. In January of this year, NuScale announced plans to sell electricity not at $58 per megawatt-hour, as originally pledged, but at $89 per megawatt-hour, citing higher than anticipated construction costs. The new projection is nearly twice the average global cost of utility-scale solar and onshore wind, according to calculations by BloombergNEF. And without the government subsidies, NuScale’s price tag would be that much higher.

In fact, there’s a fair chance that not a single NuScale SMR will ever be built: The company has said it will not begin construction until 80 percent of its expected generation capacity is subscribed, and currently buyers have signed up for less than a quarter of the plant’s capacity.

Gates’s TerraPower has an even longer way to go, although it too is cashing in on subsidies. The U.S. Department of Energy has pledged up to $2 billion in matching funds to construct a demonstration plant in Wyoming. Yet TerraPower recently announced it’s facing delays of at least two years because of difficulties securing uranium fuel from its lone supplier: Russia.


Dow Chemical plans to use one for energy at one of its chemical plants. How are they doing?

I think they have the technical expertise to make it happen. But regulatory permits might still be a problem.

People worry about plant security. But can you imagine terrorists taking over a chemical plant?

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I do not think Dow Chemicals has the expertise to make it happen. The reactor supplier needs to take the lead with an AE like Bechtel doing the construction. DOW Chemicals would provide the interface requirements for the power plant.

Terrorists would love to blow up chemical plant with a reactor. Makes a hell of a mess and very costly cleanup.

Dow and Bechtel have the sort of history with nukes in Michigan that you want to run away from.

The pump seal company I worked for received an RFP for the Midland nuke. The RFP called for seal pressure units (a system for handling the barrier fluid between inner and outer seals to prevent the fluid in the pump leaking to atmosphere if the inner seal failed) and required the company to guarantee that the pressure unit could be left in it’s crate, in the mud and weather at the site, for something like 2 years, and still work perfectly when put into service. The pump seal company said “ummm…no”.

We were promised smaller nuclear reactors. Where are they? | MIT Technology Review

You know, Steve203, the first step in the RFQ process is to request the world. Any final agreements should necessarily arrive at the appropriate balance between regulatory, client and project requirements. :smiley:

Recently a rather large collection of equipment tied to an operation was delivered to Phoenix, in the late spring. As conditions on the ground continued to deteriorate, that equipment sat in its crates for more than 8 months.

Being in direct sun, and crated in the Phoenix summer heat, was enough to bake all of the rubber and plastic components inside into a brittle, broken mess once the equipment was finally opened for construction.

I’m sure the vendor will warranty it. :rofl:

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A very stupid owner who purchase the equipment without providing proper storage. The vendor is not responsible.

Interesting article on SMRs. Mostly bad news about increasing costs and delays. Correlates with my OP.

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