As large-scale nuclear power plants have proven more and more difficult to build, the industry has shifted to proposing small “modular” nuclear reactors. SMRs aren’t a new idea, but they are still an unproven technology. They are essentially smaller nuclear reactors capable of producing 10-100 megawatts. The hope behind SMRs is that they require lower capital investment than standard nuclear reactors, but there is concern that they lack economies of scale.
SMRs generate power in the same manner as traditional nuclear generators, creating the same amount of radioactive waste per unit of energy generated and posing the same challenges when storing waste materials. The waste can remain dangerously radioactive for hundreds of years. According to a Stanford University study, “Many of the anticipated SMR waste challenges are a consequence of neutron leakage, a basic physical process that reduces the fuel burnup efficiency in small reactor cores… The feasibility of managing SMR waste streams should be studied before these reactors are licensed, and future clean energy policies should acknowledge the adverse impact that SMRs will have on radioactive waste management and disposal.”
Some countries that rely on nuclear power have invested billions in the infrastructure necessary to safely dispose of radioactive waste. Nuclear power has historically made up a small fraction of U.S. energy production, so the U.S. does not have a similar infrastructure in place. The federal government has been searching for a long-term disposal solution since the Reagan Administration, but has yet to begin construction. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “At this time there are no facilities for permanent disposal of high-level waste.”
Because SMRs generate power in the same manner as traditional nuclear generators, they likewise pose risks to public health and the environment, albeit at a smaller scale. Risks include meltdown, cancer rates among uranium miners, and potential problems with long-term storage of radioactive waste. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission: “High-level wastes are hazardous because they produce fatal radiation doses during short periods of direct exposure. For example, 10 years after removal from a reactor, the surface dose rate for a typical spent fuel assembly exceeds 10,000 rem/hour – far greater than the fatal whole-body dose for humans of about 500 rem received all at once. If isotopes from these high-level wastes get into groundwater or rivers, they may enter food chains.” Learn more here.
The costs of generating electricity by SMR can be summed in one word: uncertainty. Early estimates by UAMPS for its project with NuScale in Idaho Falls promised $55/MWh, but have risen to $58/MWh. NuScale itself had a different estimate for the project: $65/MWh. And cost estimates calculated by major utilities like PacifiCorp and Idaho Power came in higher still: $95/MWh and $121/MWh respectively. By comparison, the levelized cost of energy from wind is presently in the $26-$54/MWh range, and utility-scale solar in the $29-$42/MWh range, according to Lazard. Read more here about an analysis of the costs of SMR compared to other technologies.
As physicist Amory Lovins points out, saying that nuclear and renewables are both vital for addressing climate is like saying that since caviar and rice are both food they are both vital to reducing hunger. Resources and time spent on expensive, slow options like nuclear are drained from inexpensive, fast ones like renewables. That doesn’t help progress on climate—it undermines it.
To halt the worst of climate change, we must eliminate the most greenhouse gas at the lowest cost in the least time. Nuclear plants take around a decade to build, and are continually beset by construction delays; renewable projects take a year or less to build, sometimes just months or weeks, and cost 3-8 times less than solar and wind.
“Advanced” nuclear, such as SMR, that is pitched by the industry as cheaper and faster, is not a reality anywhere in the U.S., despite government efforts; the costs are uncertain and even a small project wouldn’t be built until 2029 or 2030 at the earliest. That means any large-scale impact would come far too late, and would detract from the climate action needed within the next ten years to avoid the worst tipping point.
Read more here, here and, here.
Fluor’s investors have been in for a roller-coaster ride. Stock prices dropped from $60 in 2018 to less than $4 per share in 2020. This happened during a time period when tech stocks generally did very well. Other investors had to step in to keep NuScale afloat in 2019. In 2020, the US Security and Exchange Commission announced it was investigating the company’s past accounting and financial reporting. Read more here.