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.

SMR reactor design

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.

SMR boondoggle

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.]

natural gas prices 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

cheaper sqfer cleaner faster pro wind graphic

The good news is finally we are.

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 March 2017:  Bechtel has now quitely dropped out of the SMR market as well, as did Babcocks and Wilcox some time earlier.

Update May 2021:  CleanTechnica – Small Modular Reactors are mostly bad policy

[Edited by Judy Youngquest]

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About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

17 responses to “Small is Ugly – the case against Small Modular Reactors”

  1. kellermfk says :

    Suggest you take a look at for a completely new nuclear approach. This patented (US) technology marries fail-safe nuclear power and fossil fuels in a single power plant. Technically, the hybrid employs a small reactor, but the plant’s output is quite large and installed cost moderate, which is why the economics work. However, the plant is also highly manueverable and that means the hybrid is an ideal renewable energy partner.

    The hybrid is actually a variation on the basic combined-cycle combustion turbine power plant that burns natural gas.

    Hybrid-nuclear energy is a classic example of why it is not a good idea to bet against technology (nuclear in this case).

    PS Capacity is not a proper measurement standard; hours of operation and generated power are more important from an investment standpoint. That is why renewable energy is generally not a good investment as long as the installed (capital) cost remains high and the capacity factors are low.

    PSS As you pointed out, the Small Modular Reactors (SMR) will not be able to compete with today’s natural fired gas turbines (combined-cycle combustion turbine) power plants, which cost significantly less to build and operate than the SMR’s. Investments in SMR’s strike me as very poor use of taxpayer money, but I put a lot of the money wasted on renewable mis-adventures in the same category.

    • Jan Haverkamp says :

      @kellermfk – you conveniently move around three main arguments brought forward in Paxus’ article: costs, waste and the existing cleaner, faster, more sustainable and less democracy-wrenching renewable energy sources and energy efficiency. On top of that you come with the term “fail-safe nuclear power”. I heard that of the RBMK design as late as 1985, of all GE’s reactors as late as 2010… there is no fail-safe technology. The problem is that where not being fail-safe does not matter if the maximum damage is a line of broken panels or a wing coming down (bad as that still is, but not a catastrophe), it *is* a problem if the maximum damage includes the spread of a large amount of radioactive isotopes into the environment. Also this plead for nuclear sounds more like a religious advertisement call than something to really consider.

  2. pnc says :

    Paxus, I’ve read with interest your posts on these “mini reactors”. I had always felt that fossil fuel generated electricity was killing more people per kw-hr than the nukes ever had. What I found ludicrous was the inability to achieve a political decision on what to do with storing or recycling the spent fuel rods (i. e. 12 billion dollars down the drain at Yucca Mountain). Now I find out that the rush to alternatives is creating a whole new set of disposal problems: agghhh!

    • paxus says :

      @pnc – i am glad my writing is at least interesting, i hope you find it compelling. Yucca was certainly a tremendous waste of money. I would
      not call the shift to alternatives a rush. Some of us have been promoting it
      and building it for over 30 years now. And chemicals for industrial processes
      (like making solar cells) need to be managed. But equating this chemical
      isolation and handling with nuclear waste handling is complaining about
      the fleas on you new cat, after having had an unconstrained wild rhino as
      your previous pet.

      Be well, thanks for you thoughts.

    • Robin McDaniel says :

      It is about time we carefully evaluate the option of nuclear energy from fuel source, design, operations, and waste disposal issues. Values of safety, environmental impact, and economics must be considered as we plan for the sources of future energy. Newer designs of small modular reactors (SMRs) which claim to be inherently safe, or intrinsically safe must be tested with these values in mind. Simple designs with sealed non-pressurized reactor vessels, which are non-refuelable, and have no moving parts are a good start. When these intrinsically safe nuclear reactors are installed deep underground they are both inaccessible to and therefore resistant to natural and man-made calamities. These new power reactors must be walk-away safe, no human actions would be required to safely operate and shutdown the reactor including the dissipation of decay heat. Until we address these issues and focus on safety, environmental impact, and economics of nuclear power, we must not build any more of the proposed water cooled, MOX fueled, and overly complicated reactors.

      • Paxus says :

        Dearest Robin:

        i am afraid we disagree on SMR, i dont even think they are worth the research money, because so much has been wasted on failed nuclear designs, many of them which were to be inherently safe.

        i certainly do not think that deep underground necessitates them being safe from seismic disruption. perhaps you know something i dont, about some deeply entombed object or facility. Enlighten me.

        Paxus at Twin Oaks
        Fukushima + 2

  3. Jan Haverkamp says :

    @Paxus – Earthquakes or earth movements are one of the regulatory problems facing the planned Onkalo nuclear waste site in Finland. Especially shifts caused by ice-sheets in the case of a new ice-age (not impossible in Finland within the coming 60.000 years – independent from current global warming). The reason not to use deep depositories for LWR and MRW in large areas of Japan is also in potential damage by earthquakes: walls can come under intense pressure when masses around it shift position.

    @Robin – why continue with concentrating highly radioactive substances, when this sheer concentration is causing us two of the big headaches of current nuclear power: the small chance of release and the unsolvable waste problems (mind you – also radwaste that is “only” a few hundred years dangerous is a qualitative nightmare). Besides that, SMRs are a proliferation risk, because of the sheer amount you need – no matter whether it is U235, plutonium or U233 they could deliver to the owner. Terrorist and war risks also exist for underground reactors: internal sabotage is always possible, also when you cannot fly an airplane into it. And ever heard of bunker busters?
    After 30 years working in this area, I see no compelling reasons for following this dead end other than for fundamental research potential. Why continue? Maybe because you took once the decision of studying nuclear reactor development? There are other jobs available than designing new reactors: the clean-up of the old ones… more jobs than people to fill the places, actually… I, for one, consider those who dare to work in that areas without falling back to promoting nuclear power as my real heroes.

  4. Robin McDaniel says :

    Watch for “High Temperature Intrinsically Safe Nuclear Reactor” paper at the 2015 ASME Power Conference San Diego 🙂

  5. Laurel Kaskurs (Defalco ) says :

    If you can put them on Mars and operate them remotely, go for it, but don’t expect me to pay my utility bill for that!
    There is going to be all kinds of resistance to clean and free power, but that’s just too damn bad. If I owned a stake in any utility company, I would be going into the nuke decommissioning business instead, which means nithing really! Let it sit in pools for 5 years and hire secutity to gusrd it=easy money. Then I would invest those profits into figuring out the best way to put the fuel in containers, once the govt. takes their share of Pu for their war profiteering corporate thug buddies. If no waste repository exists by then, buy a lot of cement, put a concrete mile square mountain over the leftover crap, with the containers in the center of it where they’re away from the groundwater /soil. On top, make a massive solar and or wind farm ! That isn’t so hard, is it? This way, their utility company could use those same transmission lines and there is how they can justify billing us for something powered by nature.

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