Small Nuclear Reactor May be in Trouble

January 20, 2023

I posted recently on the pitfalls of relying on nuclear for a climate solution.
There’s more.

David Schlissel in the Salt Lake Tribune:

Solar and wind power, augmented by battery storage, are becoming less expensive. Hydropower and geothermal energy already are providing substantial amounts of power in many parts of the country. Cost-effective, proven technologies exist and can speed the transition to a carbon-free economy.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) designed by NuScale are not among them.

More than two dozen of the 48 Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) members have signed on to buy power from the NuScale SMR when the project is planned to come online in 2029. But a history of the project — and of nuclear energy projects in general — suggests the project is likely to end badly for utilities and worse for ratepayers.

UAMPS announced earlier this month that the cost per megawatt-hour (MWh), a unit of measurement roughly equivalent to the electricity used by the average U.S. home for a little more than a month, has risen from $58/MWh to $89/MWh, a 53% increase. Plus, the cost of power from the project would be much higher than $89/MWh without more than $4 billion in subsidies the project would receive from the U.S. government. Already, the total cost of the project has risen from $5.3 billion to $9.3 billion.

Nuclear advocates often claim that the costs of nuclear reactors fall after a first design, which (if true) would be very good news for the NuScale design. Unfortunately, the nuclear industry has never shown the ability to take advantage of a learning curve, and there is no evidence to suggest that it will be able to do so now. A 2020 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found the costs of successive nuclear projects are more expensive than the original project, which is very bad news for the NuScale design.

It’s also not good news for ratepayers. New reactor designs are already notoriously expensive and highly unlikely to meet initial deadlines. The Westinghouse AP1000 design at Plant Vogtle in Georgia, for example, was originally expected to cost $14 billion and begin operation in 2016. Its price tag has soared past $34 billion, and it won’t provide power until later this year. 

Think corporations like Georgia Power, which are posting record profits, will pick up the tab? Think again: Residential consumers have already eaten $1.66 billionof construction costs, with more on the menu.

To be sure, nuclear energy has some advantages. It doesn’t emit carbon dioxide, takes up a relatively small amount of space and produces large amounts of energy. Its advantages, however, become far less apparent when the costs of a nuclear facility — and the time that it takes to build even a modest-sized project — are considered.

Proven, less-costly clean alternatives exist, especially in the western U.S. Geothermal, for example, made up 5.7% of California’s electricity generation in 2021; it was responsible for 9% in Nevada, and it’s being pushed as a much less expensive alternative to the NuScale project. Solar covers about 16% of Arizona electricity production and 6% in New Mexico. Almost 20% of Wyoming electricity comes from wind; in Idaho, the figure is about 16%.

The NuScale SMR is just another in a long line of overhyped and overpriced nuclear projects that take too much time and money — resources the planet doesn’t have in abundance if we’re serious about avoiding cataclysmic climate change by limiting global warming to 1.5⁰C by 2050.

Small modular reactors may be viable one day — but they are not today, will not be tomorrow, and may never make as much economic sense as renewable sources of electricity. We should stick to carbon-free energy sources that make financial and environmental sense.

David Schlissel is director of resource planning analysis for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, Lakewood, Ohio.


NuScale Power Co. (NYSE:SMR – Get Rating) General Counsel Robert K. Temple sold 39,642 shares of the stock in a transaction on Tuesday, January 3rd. The shares were sold at an average price of $10.19, for a total value of $403,951.98. Following the completion of the transaction, the general counsel now owns 2,000 shares of the company’s stock, valued at $20,380. The sale was disclosed in a filing with the SEC, which is accessible through this hyperlink.

Below – Artist’s renditions of beautiful small modular reactors are their own genre of kitsch, worthy of their own HGTV series. Especially like the “A-Frame in the Woods” design.


9 Responses to “Small Nuclear Reactor May be in Trouble”

  1. The 3rd from the bottom picture is the GE Hitachi BWRX-300 (Boiling Water Reactor 10th Generation 300 MW). They have lots of experience and a very refined design not to mention customers lining up.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      all good luck to them.
      This GE official says they are confident that by 2050, their reactor could produce power only 50 percent more expensive than solar and wind do today.

  2. The A-frame is from Oklo which would be a small 1-2 MW reactor for remote locations if they can ever get it past the nitpicking bedwetters at the NRC.

  3. mbrysonb Says:

    I understand the stubborn response of some to the bad news here– it really is hard to accept that an energy source that can produce so much energy from such small amounts of ‘fuel’ isn’t capable of becoming a cost-effective way to produce the vast amounts of energy that our civilization requires. But a lot of water has passed under that bridge, and the industry still can’t complete projects on time and on budget. In contrast, photovoltaics and wind (along with energy storage) pose much lower environmental risks and have a well-established history of lowering costs and improving efficiency. On another note, I have deep regrets about a project my father joined in the late ’70s: the Institute of Man and Resources was established in Prince Edward Island during the Arab oil embargo. to work on energy efficiency, energy storage and alternative energy sources. Funding for the work dried up as soon as oil came back on the world market. Despite the fact that we (including Exxon et al) knew climate change was coming, greed and short-termism won out.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Independent of GHG issues, I’ve long been a fan of wind and PV solar for other attributes. What I love about solar arrays is their simplicity of handling and configuring out in the field and the many off-grid applications made even more useful with modest amounts of modern tech storage. Wind farms have a complementary role that big players can take on (with a side effect of supporting regional communities fiscally). Both are gloriously waterless.

  4. Anthony O'Brien Says:

    They might be planned as modular reactors, but it never happens that way. Effectively you are getting prototype after prototype.

    Years ago my state decided on a train carriage type an existing well proven design. But they wanted it longer and then got horribly surprised when a longer tube vibrates differently and so much remedial work had to be done to solve newly created vibration problems. The same happens with modular reactors, take an existing design but just add a few small changes and then get surprised when the small changes become a major rework. Just changing the angle of a pipe, changes the back pressure and flow rates. A small change might be fine a simple but just a little bit bigger change and problems can emerge.

    However even if the involved parties finally get to where modular should be, nuclear has missed the boat.

  5. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Was such a beautiful world. Shame saving it cost too much money.

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