Small Nuclear Reactors, and the Curve of Innovation

September 29, 2020

There’s a reason people aren’t rushing to nuclear power to fix climate change. It’s not that easy.
Whether a new generation of “small modular reactors” – SMRs – can change that, is a wide open question, and there won’t be an answer anytime soon.

Associated Press:

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — U.S. officials have for the first time approved a design for a small commercial nuclear reactor, and a Utah energy cooperative wants to build 12 of them in Idaho.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Friday approved Portland-based NuScale Power’s application for the small modular reactor that Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems plans to build at a U.S. Department of Energy site in eastern Idaho.

The small reactors can produce about 60 megawatts of energy, or enough to power more than 50,000 homes. The proposed project includes 12 small modular reactors. The first would be built in 2029, with the rest in 2030.

The next wave of innovation': Nuclear reactors of the future are small and  modular | CBC News

Deseret News:

The debate over nuclear power has ramped up recently in Utah, with a number of the state’s municipal power agencies wrestling with continued participation in an experimental nuclear project in Idaho, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems/NuScale project.

Much has already been written about the project itself. Though proponents tout benefits of cost and reliability, two municipalities so far, Logan and Lehi, have recently opted out of further participation, citing mainly financial concerns over an experimental design with delays and cost overruns mounting rapidly. Still, this extremely expensive energy might be worth it ― if the environmental benefits, particularly for climate change, were significant.

Climate change is regarded within the full scientific community as a bona fide civilizational emergency ― that is, a situation requiring immediate, meaningful response to avoid catastrophic outcomes. For the climate emergency, meaningful response means cutting global carbon emissions at least in half in the next decade, and eliminating them entirely in the next two to three decades. 

Electricity generation, as roughly a third of the current carbon emissions, is a large piece of the equation ― and it is on this point that nuclear power has been worth considering. Indeed, the project’s developers, having christened the endeavor the “Carbon Free Power Project,” are emphasizing the climate angle. And if the question were about building new nuclear generation versus new fossil (coal or natural gas) generation, they would have a point; the clear winner with respect to climate would be nuclear.

But this isn’t the question. In rapidly decarbonizing the electrical grid, the name of the game is replacing existing high-carbon (coal and gas) with new low-carbon, as quickly as possible. In this game, it’s essential to distinguish between existing nuclear, which is already installed and running, and proposed new nuclear, which is yet to be built.

Existing nuclear makes sense at the moment. The investments have already been made and are producing low-carbon energy right now, today. From a climate or carbon standpoint, these plants should continue to generate until all existing fossil generation can be shuttered.

But proposed new nuclear makes no sense ― because it isn’t competing with fossils. Instead, new nuclear is competing with low-carbon renewables, chiefly solar and wind. And it simply can’t compete.

Investing in new nuclear projects to combat climate change is akin to the crew of the Titanic devoting time to building a whole new ocean liner instead of putting all their effort into loading the lifeboats; it steals time and resources from a much better alternative. Any money spent on new nuclear could buy us four to six times more wind and solar energy, available in months instead of a decade. And, remember, the next 10 years are critical. 

Faced with this reality, UAMPS/NuScale proponents have said they want a mostly renewable grid, but supplemented by just a bit of nuclear for “baseload” ― and that this is necessary.

The refrain of 20th century-era power managers is that renewables like wind and solar aren’t reliable (“The wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine … ”) and so constantly humming “baseload” is necessary for reliability. It sounds reasonable, but like most bumper-sticker wisdom, doesn’t hold up. In fact, it is objectively, demonstrably wrong. 

The technologies of energy storage (utility-scale battery systems, for example) and demand management (when the energy is used) have transformed the landscape. Traditional “baseload” is no longer a necessary grid attribute. Anyone who says it is simply isn’t keeping up.

In Australia, for example, a 100-megawatt utility-scale battery system (about 1.5 times bigger than one of NuScale’s nuclear modules) is already proving more reliable and 90% cheaper than the “baseload” natural gas system it’s replacing.

The energy landscape ahead will be challenging. Existing nuclear plants should continue to operate while fossil fuel generation comes offline. But new nuclear makes no sense whatsoever ― financially, or far more importantly, for addressing climate change. 

The UAMPS/NuScale project is a poor choice for the planet, for our nation and for Utah’s independent municipal power companies. A bright future is possible if we’re smart and focused; the nuclear power trap is a distraction we can’t afford.

Robert Davies is an associate professor of professional practice in Utah State University’s department of physics. His work focuses on global change, human sustainability and critical science communication.

flamanville epr

Popular Mechanics:

France’s new energy minister has called a major French nuclear project “a mess” in public interviews. The European pressurized reactor (EPR) that was commissioned for the Flamanville nuclear power plant, where it joins two existing pressurized water reactors, has been delayed and plagued by problems. The latest extension takes the project timeline from 13 years to 17 at least.

The goal with the EPR design was to continue to kit out the world’s highest-output nuclear plants, with individual reactors that were more powerful and safer. The EPR uses less uranium because its chemical design is more efficient. And it’s not any kind of major technological leap; instead, it’s an iteration on a previous design that’s just a little bit better.

The engineers are so eager to keep iterating that they already have an EPR 2 design in the works. This sounds pretty straightforward … right?

The EPR dates back to the 2000s, when the first two reactors were commissioned for France and Finland. Despite breaking ground in 2007 and 2005, respectively, neither reactor has kept to its timeline. Now, Finland will be the first in 2021, if it hits its repeatedly rescheduled opening day. France is even further back at 2023. The outgoing French administration signed the latest extension in March.

That puts Flamanville 10 years past its original due date. One of the more alarming causes for delay is a break in the “main secondary system penetration welds,” which has contributed to a budget that’s bloated from a planned $3.9 billion to $14.6 billion. 

In July, “France’s Court of Auditors slammed the Flamanville build, saying EDF had vastly underestimated its cost and timetable for completion,” Montel reports:

“The EPR reactor was originally expected to start commercial operation in 2013 and cost EUR3.3 billion. However, the project has been beset by delays and cost increases. Last October, EDF said necessary repairs to the reactor’s main secondary system penetration welds will further increase the cost of constructing the Flamanville EPR to EUR12.4 billion. The loading of fuel into the reactor has also been further delayed until the end of 2022.”

Renew Economy (Aus):

The promotion of ‘small modular reactors’ (SMRs) in Australia has been disrupted by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO).

The latest GenCost report produced by the two agencies estimates a hopelessly uneconomic construction cost of A$16,304 per kilowatt (kW) for SMRs. But it throws the nuclear lobby a bone by hypothesising a drastic reduction in costs over the next decade.

The A$16,304 estimate has been furiously attacked by, amongst others, conservative politiciansinvolved in a federal nuclear inquiry last year, and the Bright New World (BNW) nuclear lobby group.

The estimate has its origins in a commissioned report written by engineering company GHD. GHD provides the estimate without clearly explaining its origins or basis. And the latest CSIRO/AEMO report does no better than to state that the origins of the estimate are “unclear”.

Thus nuclear lobbyists have leapt on that muddle-headedness and filled the void with their own lowball estimates of SMR costs.

There is just one operational SMR, Russia’s floating plant. Its estimated cost is US$740 million for a 70 MW plant.

That equates to A$15,200 per kW – similar to the CSIRO/AEMO estimate of A$16,304 per kW.

Over the course of construction, the cost quadrupled and a 2016 OECD Nuclear Energy Agency report said that electricity produced by the Russian floating plant is expected to cost about US$200 (A$288) per megawatt-hour (MWh) with the high cost due to large staffing requirements, high fuel costs, and resources required to maintain the barge and coastal infrastructure.

Figures on costs of SMRs under construction should also be considered – they are far more useful than the estimates of vendors and lobbyists, which invariably prove to be highly optimistic.

The World Nuclear Association states that the cost of China’s high-temperature gas-cooled SMR (HTGR) is US$6,000 (A$8,600) per kW.

Costs are reported to have nearly doubled, with increases arising from higher material and component costs, increases in labour costs, and increased costs associated with project delays.


9 Responses to “Small Nuclear Reactors, and the Curve of Innovation”

  1. neilrieck Says:

    IMHO the problem is the current capitalist model running in the west. Invest money into nuclear and you may have an ROI (return on investment) in 5-7 years. Investing in wind or solar yields an ROI in 90 days.

    • @neilrieck However, from an emissions perspective, France invested in nuclear in the 1970s and has had super-low emissions for the last 40 years.

      Germany has divested from nuclear over the last 10 years and invested much much more in RE – and their emissions are still on the wrong side of the European average.

      I believe France has made the superior investment.

      • greenman3610 Says:

        they’ve done well, question is where do they go from here.
        current generation of nukes is expensive, difficult to build, as the
        article shows.
        Maybe SMRs can help, but no one will know until we get some operating
        meanwhile, renewables are here, they’re cheap, and they work.

        • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

          Renewables do work now, but they will crap out as they as they become a bigger part of the supply. As I tried to point out in my confused post below.
          With ‘100%’ renewables, supply will oscillate between very low to massive excess. Massive excess will require massive utilization capacity into storage to return way less than 100%, usually in a high capacity rush. We do not have any of these capabilities now. Even hydro has a upper limited output. A turnkey power source is needed and buggar the cost.

  2. grindupbaker Says:

    There’s no limit to the amount of redundancy that can be put on a system to make it safer. Each additional redundant safety feature costs money that’s an absolute & total waste of money, except in the massively-unlikely event that it’s ever used, in which case it isn’t a waste of money. That’s the strategic and then the tactical details are those of the individual features & inherent qualities, their cost/performance ratios. What I worked on in spare time (it’s all volunteer) for 5 years was the Code Committee for the A17.1/CAN-CSA-B44 Safety Code for Elevators proposed updates and that’s why I’m picky by nature about the handful of crappy 5-cent metrics & ambiguous catch phrases of climate science that inveigled their way into he rank amateur & even professional parts, the sloppy descriptions that are good enough. Not good enough for a major product Safety Code. Maintainability, inspectability, redundancy & graceful degradation of the overall system (not one component Greenman) are crucial beyond the qualities of the individual materials, parts & procedures. Everything wears & breaks, all procedures get forgotten, ignored & fouled up.

  3. grindupbaker Says:

    The inherent safety advantage would be if a major accident to a small one was relatively minor because it’s small (I don’t know whether that’s the case to any extent) because then low-quantity “mass” production would mean that any incidents (hopefully not accidents) result in an investigation & issuance of Safety Orders requiring part/assembly replacement or modification or procedural change(s) to all existing units and all future units. This is what happens with other products that are manufactured in larger quantity the nuclear power stations. For example, see

  4. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Relevant. The OZ state of Sth Australia claims to have the relative most PV in the world. Probably is, not important, there is a lot! It is not even close to a secure 100% supply but already problems (to be addressed) are here. New regulation allows ‘authorities’ to shut down solar input when it destabilizes the grid. Most unpopular. As renewable’s increase there will be good times when when there is massive excessive power output which will require massive and expensive facilities to store it. Wishful *&^% thinking.
    To save the world we must have low carbon turnkey power and buggar the cost.

  5. Glenn Martin Says:

    Since there are designs for SMRs that burn ‘spent’ nuclear fuel which is the most hazardous component of waste and these proposed nukes are the most economic way of dealing with it then I say let’s get a move on. By the time the waste is dealt with the tech may be cheap enough to use elsewhere.

  6. According to Michael Shellenberger, the best way to lower the cost of nuclear power is to build bigger reactors and have the same people build them over and over again. This is how you get economies of scale. Experience brings down costs. Russia and China are doing this.

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