Could Small Reactors Revive Nuclear?

October 31, 2022

What I tell people is, if you decide you want a nuclear power plant – you don’t just go buy it at the nuclear plant store.
We’ve learned a lot in the last year about the importance of supply chains.
ln the case of small modular nuclear reactors, there’s a whole lot that the casual viewer of the puffy Aljazeera piece above, might not understand about the hurdles that a new nuclear buildout has to get over – to be viable.

Examples below.

However, there is one major hurdle to the construction of most advanced reactors under development in the United States—the uranium type of fuel on which those reactors are designed to run is currently sold commercially by only one company in the world. And that company is a subsidiary of Russia’s ROSATOM, the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation.

The federal government and U.S. companies developing advanced nuclear reactors—including Bill Gates’ TerraPower—recognize the urgent need to eliminate reliance on a Russian state corporation for nuclear fuel for America’s next-generation nuclear reactors.  

The association Uranium Producers of America noted during a Senate committee hearing after the Russian invasion of Ukraine that “almost none of the fuel needed to power America’s nuclear fleet today comes from domestic producers, while U.S. nuclear utilities purchase nearly half of the of the uranium they consume from state-owned entities (SEO) in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.”

“We estimate that there is more than $1 billion in annual U.S. dollar purchases of nuclear fuel flowing to ROSATOM,” said Scott Melbye, president of the association and Executive Vice President at Uranium Energy Corp.

ROSATOM is not under Western sanctions after the Russian invasion of Ukraine because of the Russian state firm’s importance in the supply chain of the global nuclear power industry. But the U.S. firms developing the next generation of more efficient, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly nuclear reactors don’t want to do business with Russia anymore.

Hence, the need for a commercially viable and stable domestic supply chain of the fuel for those advanced reactors—HALEU, or high assay low enriched uranium. 

“If America wants to lead the global deployment of these innovative new reactors, establishing an assured domestic source of HALEU is essential,” says U.S. nuclear fuel supplier Centrus Energy, the only company in the U.S. currently licensed to produce HALEU.

The HALEU nuclear fuel component is uranium that has been enriched so that the concentration of the fissile isotope U-235 is between 5% and 20% of the mass of the fuel. This is higher than the 3-5% concentration of low-enriched uranium that fuels the existing fleet of reactors. It is still far below the 90% assay used to make weapons or power the U.S. Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. According to Centrus Energy, the higher concentration of the uranium isotope in HALEU means the fuel assemblies and reactors can be smaller, and reactors don’t need refueling as often, which is why many small modular reactor (SMR) and micro-reactor designs will run on HALEU. HALEU can also reduce the volume of waste generated.

“Production of HALEU is a critical mission and all efforts to increase its production are being evaluated,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) told Reuters.

Yet, the U.S. government faces the “chicken and egg” dilemma in HALEU supply, Matt Bowen, Research Scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University SIPA, and Paul M. Dabbar, Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the same center, wrote in a paper in May this year/ 

“Existing enrichment companies, such as Urenco, Orano, GLE, and Centrus, could make HALEU, but these companies would likely be hesitant to invest too much in building HALEU infrastructure and completing NRC licensing without being confident there will in fact be a profitable market for the product,” they say.   

“Early advanced reactor strategies relied on Russia’s established HALEU production facilities to provide the first core loads while domestic capabilities were developed,” Bill Gates’ TerraPower said after the Inflation Reduction Act was passed.

“As a result of the invasion in Ukraine, this is no longer a viable approach and the urgency to develop domestic advanced fuel infrastructure has been thrust to the forefront,” TerraPower says.

The Inflation Reduction Act allocates $700 million in federal funding to help jump-start domestic production of HALEU, which is expected to catalyze the creation of a domestic commercial HALEU market 

“This higher enriched fuel is urgently needed to support the deployment of advanced reactors, including DOE’s two demonstration projects with TerraPower and X-energy,” DOE said in September.

According to TerraPower, “one more critical piece of the puzzle remains. In order for advanced nuclear development to stay on track we need a short-term solution, along with congressional support, until the domestic HALEU supply chain is fully operational.” 

“With Russian uranium no longer viable, now is the time to seriously explore downblending highly enriched uranium (HEU) sources as a plausible way to garner the fuel needed for the initial cores of reactors being deployed this decade,” TerraPower said in August.


13 Responses to “Could Small Reactors Revive Nuclear?”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    China can build reactors at home by fiat and in other countries by bankrolling them with debt.

    That’s the only model that seems plausible right now as far as new nuclear power plants are concerned (if, indeed, there is no underlying corruption or incompetence to create and hide problems).

    • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

      That’s true unfortunately. The eternally springing hope is that things change. Do remember (this century?) blunt statements that PV would NEVER be economical. Things can be changed, Did I mention hope?

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        These days I tend to focus on what can be done in the near-term, and the optimistic schedule for the preliminary (what I consider proof-of-concept) round of SMRs is ten years, at ~200MWe a pop. Meanwhile, wind capacity in the US alone right now is upwards of 14 GW a year while grid-scale energy storage, struggling with supply chain issues, still managed to add 2.6GWh in Q2 of 2022.

        SMR may have its own S-curve, but with a relatively longer time horizon marked in decades.

        Right now we’re in a race against time against the growing positive feedback component of melting permafrost at the least, and I personally think we’re past the point where we can claw it back.

        • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

          Expect SMR’s will have applications. Meanwhile build proven reactor designs. Place turbines where ever suitable and too sodding bad if views are interrupted. Same with PV and that valley, ruined by hydro, is going to burn anyway. The other choice is leave it to mother nature whom will remove most of the human race and solve the problem. Meanwhile, avoid the black pit. It is really shitty and life is too short.

          • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

            Expect SMR’s will have applications.

            I can see some industrial sites (aluminum smelters, wafer fabs, et al) install them to maintain independent power off the grid. (AIUI, Samsung lost a very expensive run of chips when ERCOT finally had to cut them off during the Feb 2021 Deep Freeze.)

          • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

            And of course, like many and numerous PLANS, they do not exist until they are built and functional.

  2. mboli Says:

    Small and modular is great! You can order these small modules for delivery. If your electricity needs are greater, you can stack these modules up to three high.

    Spent fuel cartridges are a bit of an inconvenience — you can’t put them in the trash. But you can’t send them back either because the post office and most delivery services won’t take them. But soon there will be drop-offs at municipal recycling sites all around. And Home Depot is considering adding bins, next to the bins for CFLs and recyclable batteries.

    • mboli Says:

      The above is a test. It is a test of the emergency humor system. Had there been a comedic emergency MCs in your area ….

  3. neilrieck Says:

    Up until last week, I was pro-nuclear (especially the heavy water variety known as CANDU) but now I am not so sure. Quite by accident, I was put in touch with a retired nuclear engineer who has some post retirement regrets. So here are just two points of many: (1) He mentioned that all reactors create plutonium waste which has a half-life of 20,000 years (how the hell to we deal with that mess?) and can be used by crazy people to make weapons of mass destruction. (2) The reason why current reactors are so large is to make the most efficient use of uranium fuel (neutron wise). Moving to a smaller design “will produce more nuclear waste on a per megawatt basis”. Until I learn that the industry has addressed these issues, I am now guardedly pessimistic.

    • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

      Good news is that Plutonium is extremely useful, hellishly expensive and apparently in short supply. With money to be made it is recovered from the waste.

  4. Gingerbaker Says:

    The problem is that the few examples of new nuclear construction in the US and the UK show us that the cost of new nuclear is nothing like the expected cost. New nuclear is running about $20 – $25 billion dollars per project. And it could be more by the time they are actually finished.

    Using standardized construction does not bring the cost down. SMR’s are predicted to be more expensive per watt than regular plants.

    And the cost of new nuclear per watt is estimated to be between 5 and 17 times more than wind, water, solar. And this does not even include the costs of spent fuel disposal and storage, or the costs of melt-down clean up. Fukushima is going to cost a trillion dollars to fix.

    So nuclear is going nowhere except UP in price, and wind and solar continue to go DOWN in price. It’s nearly insane to think about nuclear anymore with those prices. And fruitless as well, since we simply are not building anything fast enough anyways.

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