The Weekend Wonk: Small Modular Reactors: Yes or No?

July 12, 2020

34 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: Small Modular Reactors: Yes or No?”

  1. ecoquant Says:

    So, this was a good show, but the discussion skips over a lot of background.

    To my mind, it’s no doubt that nuclear electrical power could have had a big role in providing reliable, safe zero Carbon energy. And I grant that, apart from long term disposal of nuclear waste, and contrary to what many environmentally-minded progressives believe, nuclear power can be built and operated very safely. However, choices by the nuclear industry long ago doomed them and our chances to do so. In fairness, this kind of choice isn’t limited to the nuclear power or nuclear industry: The military and their contractors tend to go in preference with fewer big individually expensive units, to their detriment. Why that is the case may have something to do with profit margins and risk on big contracts being better for the contractor if they are structured as cost plus, or it could be many other things. And, with the long term plan of the U.S. military to build up a nuclear materials and fissile fuels industry to feed their need for weapons grade in lieu of building one up themselves, they may have had something to do with nuclear industry choices.

    So why do I say it’s doomed and big expensive reactors are a detriment? It’s a simple engineering matter. If one builds a few big reactors, no two of them are identical by definition, and the engineering experience of building one is not that transferrable to building a second. On the other hand, if the Ford Model T route is elected, and thousands of identical copies of a unit are built, the standard techniques of quality control and mass production can be brought to bear to making the units cheaper and more reliable.

    So, instead of building big reactors, the industry should have seized the idea of building small ones — and I’d go with the VSMR size rather than SMR — and learning how to lash them together to scale up to power stations of arbitrary size, even if this is less efficient, in many ways, than building the big one. The ancillary efficiencies and cost reductions are what matter. Moreover, they could have been detachable and portable so, for example, if one broke or needed to be refueled, it could be hauled away and replaced with another unit, without bringing down the central power or affecting it much. Think of the comparative redundancies a big wind farm or solar farm provides, and you’ll get the idea.

    In a world of digital control, and using another analogy, that of computer server farms, with identical makeup, these reactors could be controlled by very few individuals, even remotely. I’m sure that if nuclear bombs can have PALs and ENDS, breach-preventing mechanisms could be built into portable nuclear reactors, satisfying concerns about diversion.

    They did not however, and this is why the building of nuclear power, even after long operation, means per Watt-hour, it is the most expensive electrical power on the planet. In addition, the upstream Carbon emissions for manufacture and construction of plants are enormous. In addition, when a 600 MW Pilgrim plant goes offline all at once, with little notice, the grid groans under the loss of power. Today peaking gas plants jump on to fix that. They are expensive. And they are, from an emissions perspective, dirty. (No one should confuse them with emissions from gas combined cycle plants.)

    However, none of this will happen. It isn’t 1965 or even 1975, it’s 2020. Now there’s a need for a crash program. This is a completely new technology, irrespective of what the industry will tell you. And even if its long term per Watt-hour costs are low, there is the investment and time required in the new technology. So what’s a realistic time frame for rolling this out? And what could that investment buy if simply used to purchase and build wind turbines, solar farms, and battery storage even using today’s technology? A lot. It could even be used to develop a much smarter self-healing electrical grid for much of the country.

    And how “necessary” are these for a zero Carbon electrical power source and why? Are they necessary because they needed for technical or engineering reasons? And are some of those reasons because they regulatory authority and apparatus is too inflexible to be able to, say, update the grid for widespread wind, solar, and batteries? How much of that is because the utility companies don’t like it or think it’s bad for their shareholders, in the cases where they have shareholders?

    And the big question is how much do people who, in many jurisdictions, claim to care about mitigating climate change and moving to zero Carbon electrical energy, and even who claim to care about environmental and climate justice, how much are they willing to “soil the appearances” of their pristine suburban and rural communities to build solar farms and wind turbines, and battery farms to achieve these? Because if they are not, then there will be a zero Carbon energy deficit and a false need for things like nuclear power. What they’ll end up with isn’t nuclear but electricity generated by natural gas.

    It’s really hypocritical for white, liberal and progressive people in suburban towns and rural centers to claim to care about climate justice and climate change mitigation, yet continue to consume electrical power, switching to EVs and the like, yet insisting these be generated by dirty and dangerous plants situated in communities of color and low income, while they retain the “pristine” look of their towns. In my book, if you use electrical power and do not want to conserve, you should be willing to give up some substantial chunk of your town’s area to help generate it. And you shouldn’t oppose large solar and wind farms built on private property.

    My annoyance is based not only upon the public’s attitude but that they get people like Sierra Club and to back them up in their opposition.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      It’s really hypocritical for white, liberal and progressive people in suburban towns and rural centers to claim to care about climate justice and climate change mitigation, yet continue to consume electrical power, switching to EVs and the like, yet insisting these be generated by dirty and dangerous plants situated in communities of color and low income, while they retain the “pristine” look of their towns.

      So, what, they should insist that the power be generated by nuclear power plants situated in communities of color and low income instead? Is decrying NIMBY supposed to be some kind of argument as defense/advocacy of nuclear power plants?

      Upper middle class and richer communities will always have more resources to fight the placement of power plants, diesel truck transfer hubs, prisons, train lines, Section 8 housing, highway interchanges, etc. Furthermore, builders of these facilities naturally migrate to places where it will be cheap to buy land (or politicians), and where some of the lower-income working class will even welcome them as job providers. People who make money off of these projects groom such working class communities to vote in their favor and against their own self-interests.

      • ecoquant Says:

        Yeah, but solar farms, as I noted, aren’t that dirty or noisy or anything else.

        Opposing them is really quite contrived.

        No matter, what will happen is their opposition will entitle the towns which do this to much more expensive electricity down the road if they don’t have local generation.

        That will, in the long run, tend to deflect local business and ownership.

        They’ll change their minds. Maybe all the people there now need to die first.

  2. Keith McClary Says:

    SMRs are also being promoted for cooking the tar out of the Tar Sands.

  3. J4Zonian Says:

    If it weren’t so typically dishonest and dangerous I’d be amused by the glowing reports of safety of these reactors-that-don’t-exist-yet. Oh good! More meterless power!

    But it’s the classic Bermuda business triangle, isn’t it? Cheap, fast or safe. You can have them cheap which is the only way they can be built in our psychopathic economic system; you can have them fast, which is the only way they’ll be useful at all in our crisis; or you can have them safe. So, cheap, fast, and unsafe it is. 7:40.
    Except no, not that fast. If we move to emergency footing we’ll have everything else built and half paid off on the carbon cost of its construction before the first of these is on line and even starting to pay it off. (If we don’t, we’ll be unable to build any of these because civilization will be imploding.) And almost certainly not that cheap, since there’s no reason to think the industry has given up its long tradition of lying about everything. So unfast, uncheap, and unsafe it is. Let’s cancel the Haliades and get started. MTNIGA!

  4. redskylite Says:

    U.K are investing in the development of such devices – looks much more likely to come to fruition, well ahead of the nuclear holy grail “fusion”.

    We need as many low-carbon options as we can muster, as well as co-operation across time zones, countries etc.

    energylivenews 13th July 2021 ::

    “UK Government invests £40m to develop next-gen nuclear tech

    A majority of the funding will support three Advanced Modular Reactor (AMR) projects, which are much smaller than traditional nuclear energy power plants

  5. Glenn Martin Says:

    Many new designs, specifically MSR’rs, burn ‘spent’ fuel and could go a long way to solving the bulk of our nuclear waste problem. That they could also generate power makes them liklely the most cost effective way of doing so.
    So they’re going to be developed anyway. The fact is a lot of spending by world governments is useless subsidies for industries that don’t need them or defense spending which good diplomacy would render pointless. We’ve got the money to go full blast on both renewables and develop sensible nuclear power. All that’s lacking is the will.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Burning spent fuel doesn’t solve any problems, it does create new ones at least as bad. The development you mention is in the wrong direction, can’t be done in time to help with our crises, and can’t compete with the still rapidly dropping price of clean safe renewables.

      The only sensible nuclear development is to decommission them all as fast as they and fossil fuels can be replaced with clean safe renewable energy. Useless subsidies? Exactly what any money thrown into the black hole of nukes would be. Like fossil fuels, it’s an industry that sensible energy development would render gone forever.

      • ecoquant Says:


        I agree. I think your sketch is also the cheaper route.

        My big concern of late is that the lower spatial energy density of zero Carbon sources is colliding with privileged populations who very much enjoy the idea of putting dirty and dangerous fossil fuel or nuclear facilities far away from their homes. Putting them, apparently, in low income communities and communities of color is okay by them. Because of the higher energy density, it’s okay by them that a few places are spoiled by these, as long as they are not in their backyards.

        • J4Zonian Says:

          Yes, thanks for that. I’ve been mystified by the completely bogus “energy density” argument; it’s untrue, irrelevant, and makes no sense, but comes up over and over. I’m sure this is why—it’s pointing, consciously or un, to the reassuring ability of the privileged to escape the effects of their exploitation by pushing them onto scapegoated people and nature. Externalization—of economic costs, health effects, and pollution, etc.—is one of the corollary social processes of projection, along with scapegoating, ignoring, marginalizing, isolating (redlining, over-incarceration, forced emigration or banishment…) and others. With fossil and fissile fuels it’s been easy to separate extraction/generation and benefits, economically and in the landscape, especially mostly grandfathered-in sites and forcing new extraction, generation, and transmission on the politically less powerful. Renewables tend to be more local and harder to split, so there’s yet another, even stronger and more concrete excuse for the right to hate them than all the others.

          Compared to fossil and fissile fuels’ ever-expanding stain of wrecked land and leaked-out damage, clean safe renewable energy will take up tiny amounts of land, most of which can be on wasteland, (including fossil fuel wasteland) rooftops, parking lots, roadways, bridges, and in the oceans and other water bodies with offshore wind, solar, tidal, wave, and OTEC. And as it improves it takes up even less land.

          “A newer wind turbine in Altamont Pass.
          On the rolling hills of Altamont Pass, east of San Francisco, one of the country’s oldest wind farms has produced power for more than 30 years.
          1500 wind turbines were recently removed from one of the oldest wind farms in the US, and replaced with enough new turbines to supply about the same amount of electricity—82 of them.”

  6. disdaniel8 Says:

    I’m waiting for the nano-SMRs to be developed–you know the ones that are so small they can power your cellphones continuously for 2.4 years…and because they are so small they won’t produce enough waste to be concerned with. And since we don’t need to worry about waste they can be made rather light—no shielding needed–just imagine less radiation than a bunch of bananas. And since they are small and light, they can also be cheap–why there will be billions of them in just a decade or so powering all your devices around the clock, and that scale will make them even cheaper!

  7. A story that hasn’t gotten a lot of notice is meltdown proof nuclear fuel pellets:

    Triso— short for “tristructural isotropic”—fuel is made from a mixture of low enriched uranium and oxygen, and it is surrounded by three alternating layers of graphite and a ceramic called silicon carbide. Each particle is smaller than a poppy seed, but its layered shell can protect the uranium inside from melting under even the most extreme conditions that could occur in a reactor.

    Paul Demkowicz is the director of the Advanced Gas Reactor Field Development and Qualification Program at Idaho National Laboratory, and a large part of his job is simulating worst-case scenarios for next-generation nuclear reactors. For the past few years, Demkowicz and his colleagues have been running qualification tests on triso fuel that involve putting them in a reactor and cranking the temperature. Most nuclear reactors today operate well below 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and even the next generation high-temperature reactors will top out at about 2,000 degrees. But during the INL tests, Demkowicz demonstrated that triso could withstand reactor temperatures over 3,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Out of 300,000 particles, not a single triso coating failed during the two-week long test.

    • ecoquant Says:

      Neat, but addressing the wrong problem, in my opinion.

      Nuclear reactors, even existing ones, are pretty safe. Quibbles can be had over the safety of spent waste and mining new fuel.

      The trouble is constructing nuclear reactors is horrifically expensive, in time, cost, and impact upon environment, both directly and in terms of upstream environmental emissions and cost and impacts. Mining fuels has big environmental impact.

      Hence, Wind, Water, and Solar.

      See also.

  8. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    The world is heating up and it will be catastrophic, meaning very bad. The solution is to reduce effectively all GHG. The belief this can be done by renewable’s is wishful thinking, as in not THINKING at all. So stop cluttering crock with dogmatic anti nuclear crock and look for solutions,

    • ecoquant Says:

      Tens of thousands of land base wind and hundreds of thousands of solar farms can be rolled out for the price of 10 big nuclear plants. Placed at synoptic scale or larger and properly integrated these are independent of weather. Coupling solar with good storage makes them independent of night. Solar and wind are so cheap it’s reasonable to overbuild to hit any demand target and use active demand controls to modulate shortfalls.

      If solar and wind are placed close to consumption, most of the time they win purely because joule losses and energy conversion losses by other technologies are avoided, including step up/down.

      And nuclear power is intermittent …. Perhaps not with as high a frequency as wind and solar appreciably below synoptic scales, but when it goes down, it is unpredictable and warning time is a couple of minutes. That means in effect nuclear demands peaking natural gas as a backup which means those emissions need to be assigned to nuclear, too. Ad well as upstream for pipelines, mining and refining, etc, and cost of money for keeping the peakers idled most of the time.

      • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

        A stable continuous power grid requires a minimum of 40% firm turnkey power to work. Renewable’s are not firm. Solar spikes in the middle of the 1/3 of the day when the sun is shining! wind is at the whim of the gods, all of whom have a warped sense of humor. This is self evident. And you say nuclear is intermittent. A joke perhaps? This is too important for ideological favorites. You are wrong.

        • ecoquant Says:

          (a) Pilgrim nuclear in Massachusetts went offline several times with as little as two minute warnings. One time it was down for many months.

          (b) “Solar spikes” and wind variability are only seen measured at the outgoing of a single generating station, geographically specific. To be fair, you need to look at the integrated, combined generation of a spatially dispersed amount of generation comparable to that with which you are comparing. In the limit in a properly designed zero Carbon energy system, such assets are broadly spread at synoptic scales and integrated across a modern grid with dynamic voltage and other management services. Some inverters are coming equipped with some of these services which can be activated by remote signalling. Synoptic scale is important because it is the scale of weather systems. Geographic build-out at such scales decorrelates output of individual systems, irrespective of weather. This can be seen in the phase shifting of peak loads when there’s greater spatial build-out.

          (c) In New England, much of the current solar PV generation is connected to the distribution system, not the transmission system. This reduces demand for power from the grid, but does not affect the characteristics of the transmission system itself. So the grid is not disturbed. Imbalances and variability of generation have been studied in other climes as well.

          (d) While nothing is quite as good as real time output measurements from all solar PV, including BTM, in its absence planners can still do a lot with clever modeling. Of course, these models can be tuned by looking at residuals.

          The readership should understand that “baseload” is broadly misunderstood. Traditionally, it has been provided by generation from a relatively few large plants. But there is no reason it cannot also be provided by steady generation by a large number of much smaller generators, and the mix may not even be the same from minute to minute. See:

          B. Matek, K. Gawell, “The benefits of baseload renewables: A misunderstood energy technology“, The Electricity Journal, 28(2), March 2015, 101-112.

          J. W. Chang, M. G. Aydin, J. Pfeifenberger, K. Spees, J. I. Pedtke, “Advancing Past “Baseload” to a Flexible Grid“, Brattle Group report, 26 June 2017.

          And, of course:

          Jacobson et al., 2019, One Earth 1, 449-463
          December 20, 2019 ª 2019 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Inc.


        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          More of the existing nuclear plants are having to be shut down due to overwarm cooling water events, as the French plants during the August 2019 European heat wave. What we need is to buffer against power-supply drops of any kind (including failed transmission lines) by adding a buffer of grid storage.

          Grid storage (ranging from industrial-sized liquid air batteries to pumped hydro to lifting rocks) can take advantage of excess power produced from wind, solar, off-peak nuclear, etc., based on surge pricing. Power utilities can even trim the power with their own dedicated small fast-response battery arrays.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      There are 4 countries with mostly nuke energy, 3 of them—Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine—just barely over 50%, the other (France, 72) cutting back to replace nukes with clean safe renewable energy.

      At least 65 countries have mostly renewable grids; more than 40 with more renewable energy than France has nuke, and at least 23 at or near 100% renewable.

      Dozens of studies have shown different paths to 100% renewable energy for the US, the world, and every region of it. Those studies (link is to 2016, ancient in RE years so tremendous progress has been made since: ) variously apply hocketed variable and dispatchable RE.

      RE sources complement each other. Solar and wind peak, mostly (and mostly predictably) at opposite times over the course of both a day and a year; hydro has a third, also complementary peak but with geothermal, 24/7 concentrated solar, and other dispatchable renewables can be called on when needed. Those sources are integrated into a distributed generation smart grid, with demand response strategies, and when needed at very high levels of VRE, batteries and hydro and other storage. EV batteries, especially public EVs, can be used in V2G (Vehicle to Grid) systems of storage, too. So the grid can call on wind and solar PV from different time zones as well as different weather systems to combine with dispatchable RE to provide all the energy needed.

      The marginal capacity factor of offshore (floating) wind is now 63%, higher than US gas or coal, and is still rising, while solar can be 30%. The cost and effectiveness of batteries are improving at such tremendous rates, wind + solar + batteries is now cheaper than all other sources except efficiency and wiser lives in a growing number of places. A recent study found hundreds of thousands of potential pumped storage sites worldwide. ARFs (anti-renewable fanatics) once claimed VRE couldn’t be 10% of a grid. That was passed and they said it couldn’t be 20%. That was passed… and so on. Then the general rule was % of a VRE could equal capacity factor (Ramez Naam) so W+SPV could theoretically be as high as 90%. In reality, especially at such high CF there’s some overlap, so it would be lower, but with hydro, geo, CSP, batteries, etc. 100% is obviously reachable. (The fact that it has been reached over and over is also good evidence that it can be. Inability/refusal to comprehend that is a clear sign of some disorder.) The only question left is why BJ-S et al have such a need to diss RE that they spread lies about it constantly. Job or hobby?

    • J4Zonian Says:


      A few 100% RE studies have modeled significant over-supply, but even so end up with cheaper electricity than today or on any other path. Most of them assumed the technology of their day or a slower advance of solar, wind, batteries and other technologies than has actually happened—and will continue to. So the development of batteries has negated both any need for such oversupply and any credibility to ARF arguments.

      Some studies have used absurd exaggerations about what can be done with not-really-non-dirty coal, etc. but as far as I know, not one questions the ascendancy of a system so insane it can tell humanity:

      Sorry, it’s not really profitable enough for the already-rich, for us to consider saving civilization from the ecological crisis. Come back in 10 years if there still is any civilization, and we’ll see if we feel like it.

      All that’s required to implement solutions to concrete, steel, flying, long distance driving, most utility resistance to renewables, and several other major challenges is to stop being ruled by the notion that even every single non-punishment-and-coercion-oriented structure and act has to demonstrate dominance of the white male oligarchy and increase the concentration of wealth. Rejecting that notion also makes it cheaper and easier to transform the grid, primary energy, forestry (wow, talk about colonialism!) and agriculture, though the last may require a deeper change in our relationships to reach its full sequestration potential.

      But there’s a small cadre of mentally ill people who run most of the world, and they refuse to consider even slowing the rate at which they’re hogging more and more of the wealth. They fanatically resist reducing their exploitation of humans and the rest of nature. Among the symptoms of their disease are fossil and fissile fuels.

      Many of us have shown on this site that clean safe renewable energy can provide all the energy humanity needs. The belief that this can’t be done by renewable’s [sic] is part of that symptom, and represents the disease. So stop cluttering crock with dogmatic nuclear and capitalist/colonialist propaganda and stop dissing the only proven and possible solutions.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Personally, independent of GHG issues, I’m a big fan of wind and PV solar because they are waterless, scalable, quick to install, able to fit in tiny and/or odd-shaped lots, and require lower-cost maintenance skills. You can put PV solar kits on the backs of donkeys to deploy in remote villages.

      Small growers in remote sites in Puerto Rico were able to recover some functionality much more quickly than those that depended on high-V transmission lines taken out by Hurricane Maria, where shipping in replacements for some of the broken panels took one trip in contrast to the months of ongoing resupply of fuel to diesel generators.

  9. grindupbaker Says:

    At 7:58 stronger containment is not the way to deal with explosions for such an important safety-related structure as one involving nuclear radiation. The energy must be dissipated. Downwards is the way to go. So the floor of the containment is a pad that sits on a water bath supported by springs and the explosion forces the 1,000,000 tonnes of water beneath out through the few hundred pipes causing a huge explosion of dirt & water at the enclosed area 100 metres away, the relief pressure area. The containment and all internal components are designed the usual 2x the strength required to withstand the back pressure exerted on them as the 1,000,000 tonnes of water is forced out through the pipes. You don’t contain an explosion simply by building a stronger container. You dissipate the energy by making it do work. The alternative to my suggestion is seen in this very video at 2:19.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Yeah, we could put them in places where we wanted the work done–holes dug, mountain tops removed, ocean water boiled for instant large scale desalination, rapid acceleration for spaceships, trash vaporizing… We could give it a suitably Manichean/ Biblical name like…um…’Beaten Swords’ or something. The Invade Dept.–er, Attack Dept. no wait, Defensive Dept. could be in charge of it.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      How very phreatic of you.

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