Small is Ugly – the case against Small Modular Reactors
[With apologies to E.F. Schumacher, who wrote the important book Small is Beautiful]
“Don’t bet against technology.” is the advice I give to people who are saying certain industrial developments won’t happen, or will not happen soon. There are breakthroughs every day and most of them are not forecasted much in advance. So why am I not excited about the recent Department of Energy’s decision to fund the development of Small Modular Reactor (SMR) designs?
So the hype runs like this. We want a reactor which is smaller because the big reactors are inflexible on the grid, often providing more power than an area (or even small countries) can use. Small is flexible. Small reactors can be built in factories and shipped to the site nearly complete – reversing the current ratio of 70% of the reactor built on site and 30% in the factory. Mass production will help avoid cost overruns and delays which plague larger reactors. Smaller reactors can be refueled less frequently and will require smaller staff to run them. We need a mix of energy solutions, rather than depending on just fossil sources and renewables. The navy has successfully used small reactors to power aircraft carriers and submarines successfully for years. Let’s just take this technology to the private sector.
Sounds pretty compelling right? It is no surprise these reactors have broad bi-partisan support in congress.
Small is flexible. But it turns out that 180 to 250 MW of these new designs is not actually small. The obstacle Germany and other countries face as they move to increasingly renewable solutions is that these big point source power producers interfere with grid distribution; basically renewable electricity has to be routed around them. This is why the closure of reactors is so important in terms of building a real flexible renewables feed network of microgrids. Big reactors are a big problem for the grid, these small reactors are still big enough to be a problem.
It is certainly possible that small reactors could be built in factories and shipped to sites nearly complete. It is not a coincidence that large reactors have been built for so long and in so many places around the world by so many different engineering firms with some of the highest paid executives and engineers in the world. I don’t like them, but these are not stupid people.
There are huge fixed costs associated with getting reactors running. You need tremendous water supplies, large grid connections, waste and fuel handling facilities – there are favorable economies of scale to large reactors. The reason dozens of engineering firms in over 30 countries around the globe have built big reactors (and multiple units wherever they could) is not because they all made the same mistake, it is because to make this huge investment even begin to make sense you need to do it in a big way. It is unclear if the mass production savings of SMRs will offset the economy of scale advantages of current designs. what is clear is that attempts to use modular components in the four AP1000s currently under construction in the US have utterly failed to keep costs down, or even controlled. And similarly this supposed benefit will not help the first handful of SMRs. The non-partisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense gave SMR’s their Golden Fleece Award for using taxpayer money where business should be paying.
The small reactors we find in nuclear military vessels produce electricity at ridiculously high prices per kilowatt. This is why no engineering firm is proposing these well understood designs for mass production. There is a long history of failed efforts to build small reactors. The cost of naval small reactor power never becomes competitive, even if mass produced. And nuclear naval vessels don’t have to worry about cooling water, making them structurally cheaper than the proposed new SMRs.
The energy mix argument is a throwaway. We can generate energy by hooking teenagers with ipods up to stationary bicycles and running turbines. We don’t do this because it makes no economic sense. Neither do nukes, large or small.
What is really happening is that the nuclear industry is not only not looking at the much hyped Renaissance, it is in its death throes. At what was perhaps the height of the so-called Nuclear Renaissance, October 2010, 17 companies and consortium were applying for licenses to build 30 reactors in US. But by the beginning of 2011 over half of these projects had been officially abandoned, with most of the rest quite unlikely to ever be built. Five reactors are under construction in the US, 2 in Georgia (Vogtle), 2 in South Carolina (VC Summer) and Watts Bar II in Tennessee which was started in 1973. All of these plants are delayed and overbudget, despite 4 of them having started construction in the last 18 months.
Add to this the lower price of natural gas, the continuing decreasing cost of renewables, Fukushima market jitters, the Obama administration cutting loan guarantees for new reactor construction and there is not much of a future for old style large reactors. [It is worth noting in the first 10 months of 2012, renewable energy sources accounted for 46% of all new installed capacity in the US.]
Small reactors reduce costs by eliminating the secondary containment, increasing the chances nuclear accidents will not be contained. There is still no rad-waste solution for these reactors. Oh, and there are not even any finished designs for these reactors, much less prototypes.
Don’t bet against technology. But don’t waste billions and decades researching unproven designs which will likely never be economical, when there are safer, cleaner, cheaper solutions at hand.
Union of Concerned Scientists updated critique of small reactors.
Update July 2015: The GAO report recently released sees many problems with SMRs and advanced reactor designs, including the likely inferior cost profile compared with real renewables. More importantly, since this original writing Westinghouse has dropped out of SMR development citing that “there are no customers”
Update January 2016 from the Ecologist Magazine: The US Government Accountability Office released a report in July 2015 on the status of small modular reactors (SMRs) and other ‘advanced’ reactor concepts in the US. The report concluded:
“While light water SMRs and advanced reactors may provide some benefits, their development and deployment face a number of challenges … Depending on how they are resolved, these technical challenges may result in higher-cost reactors than anticipated, making them less competitive with large LWRs [light water reactors] or power plants using other fuels …
“Both light water SMRs and advanced reactors face additional challenges related to the time, cost, and uncertainty associated with developing, certifying or licensing, and deploying new reactor technology, with advanced reactor designs generally facing greater challenges than light water SMR designs.
“It is a multi-decade process, with costs up to $1 billion to $2 billion, to design and certify or license the reactor design, and there is an additional construction cost of several billion dollars more per power plant.”
Update Feb 2017: One of the darlings of the nuclear industry is Transatomic Power and it is easy to see why. Telegenic founders from prestigious schools made some incredible promises. Specifically, their claim that they could use spent nuclear reactor fuel to power their design and that they could get 75 times as much power per unit of uranium as a conventional reactor. This resulted in tremendous venture capital funding and lots of media attention. Turns out these clever MIT students got it wrong. Their professors checked their math and found it lacking. Spent fuel can not be used. The efficiency of fuel use might be twice (not 75 times) conventional reactors. This was reported in MIT’s own magazine Technology Review.
Update May 2021: CleanTechnica – Small Modular Reactors are mostly bad policy
[Edited by Judy Youngquest]