Smaller Size, Big Price Tag: Small modular reactors are risky

As the so-called nuclear renaissance here in the United States slowly collapses, a different type of nuclear reactor known as a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) has been heralded by nuclear proponents as the way of the future. The Tennessee Valley Authority and Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site appear to be leading the charge for this risky technology here in the Southeast.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), these small reactors, colloquially known as “mini-nukes,” produce anywhere from 10 megawatts to 700 megawatts of electrical output. While traditional nuclear power plants tend to be large, expensive structures, “mini-nuke” reactors could be as small as a hot tub, assembled in a factory and transported straight to a site. The “mini nukes” generate far less energy than larger nuclear power plants such as the proposed Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design being pursued by numerous utilities here in the Southeast, however, proponents advocate that they could better serve small electric grids that cannot hold large scale nuclear reactors.

Although these “mini-nukes” are hardly a new concept, having been in the works for several years, they gained significant steam in February of 2010 when the NRC, in an effort once again to promote nuclear power and plan out their future workload, issued a call to would-be small reactor builders inquiring whether they would apply for permits, licenses and/or certifications in the near future. President Obama, who requested $39 million for a new program targeting these reactors, has been among those pushing for SMR’s. Energy Secretary Chu is also on the bandwagon with an oped in the Wall Street Journal.

The NRC does not even expect its first SMR design certification application until 2012, however, starting in fiscal year 2011, the Department of Energy will start to give the nuclear industry our taxpayers money to help pay for two SMR’s which have not even been certified yet. Yes, you read that correctly-the nuclear industry is getting yet another taxpayer-funded handout!

Once again mini-nuke proponents claim that SMR technology won’t have the many problems that have plagued large-scale nuclear reactors such as cost, safety, and radioactive waste. This is far from the truth. In fact, history, common sense and experts in the field all state that these SMR’s will only aggravate these serious concerns! Read the excellent fact sheet by the Institute for Energy & Environmental Research and Physicians for Social Responsibility. Small Modular Reactors will prove to be more expensive than the already costly traditional nuclear reactors, open the United States to dozens of new security risks, exacerbate the radioactive waste issue and continue to push away the affordable, sustainable solutions to climate change.

Let’s take a look at what the proponents of “mini-nukes” claim versus reality.

Claim: SMR’s will be more affordable because SMR’s can be factory made, saving on many of the expensive construction costs that plague traditional nuclear reactor, saving taxpayer money and keeping utility costs low.

Reality: Economies of scale show that this is incorrect. The price per kilowatt of materials used in SMR’s goes up the smaller the reactors become. As reported in Public Power Weekly’s December 13, 2010 newsletter, TVA’s Jack Bailey stated that in dollars per kilowatt, the small modular reactors are expected to be slightly more expensive to build than a single large nuclear plant. Large-scale nuclear reactors have one independent system for control, whereas SMR’s could have multiple control systems generating additional expenses.

The nuclear industry and its lobbyists also claim that less construction time would lead to fewer costs. However, the expectation is to construct several SMR’s in one site over a period of time. This phased implementation of building several SMR’s at one site would negate any possible economic gain via shorter construction time. If utilities use the phased implementation approach, the nuclear industry would need to estimate future energy needs and build larger containment structures and a single control room to manage all future SMR’s within the facility. This is unwise because energy consumption and future energy need fluctuates as policy and prices change. If future energy need decreased, or nuclear energy fell out of favor, subsequent SMR’s would never be built, making the price per kilowatt of those built exorbitantly high. Finally, proponents of SMR’s highlight that reactor’s can be mass manufactured. If this were to happen, however, the oversight and quality control checks would have to be rigorous to prevent catastrophic accidents due to manufacturing errors.

Claim: SMR’s would be safer, posing fewer security risks.

Reality: “Mini-nukes” would threaten national security. The United States is not the only country looking to construct SMR’s. In fact, it has been heavily marketed to developing countries whose transmission systems cannot handle large-scale reactors. If pursued in the U.S., Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center believe that such a program “would open up the door for France and Russia to also start selling these small reactors to nations around the world.” Many of the countries where these “mini-nukes” are being marketed for do not have stable political systems, can be fraught with corruption and security forces are not properly trained to protect the technology and materials which can be used to create nuclear bombs. Additionally, if the U.S. hailed nuclear energy and small modular reactors as the future of energy, it would be impractical if not impossible to simultaneously deny the technology to the rest of the world.

Claim: SMR’s are smaller so the number of control staff and even security staff can be reduced.

Reality: This would be a highly irresponsible way of cutting costs. “If sabotaged, even a 20-megawatt reactor could release a substantial amount of radiation,” said Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Do you we really want to decrease security staff meant to protect spent nuclear fuel, a highly dangerous material that can be used as a primary ingredient to create bombs? Pocket nukes are “just another bombmaking threat,” added Sokolski. Moreover, do we want to under staff a control room when any malfunction that isn’t handled immediately could lead to the avoidable deaths of tens of thousands of people? The answer must be a resounding no.

Claim: Radioactive waste management for SMR’s would be simpler than with traditional nuclear reactors because there would be less waste per reactor and because single fuel charges last longer.

Reality: SMR’s will greatly complicate the disposal of nuclear waste. First, the use of SMR’s would inevitably increase the number of designated locations for radioactive nuclear waste in the world, making the waste more difficult to control, track and manage. Second, given that many of these “mini-nukes” are proposed to be built underground, the management and storage of radioactive waste could become much more complex, especially in the event of even a minor accident.

Claim: New nuclear power technologies must be part of a future energy plan.

Reality: Safe, clean and affordable energy options exist TODAY that do not pose the serious risks that SMR’s or other forms of new nuclear energy technologies do. The United States can already implement energy efficiency measures and produce clean, renewable energy at a cheaper rate than building any type of new nuclear reactor. This can be done here in the Southeast too. Unfortunately, nuclear proponents in the Southeast have shown interest in constructing SMR’s. On November 5, 2010 the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) sent the Nuclear Regulatory Commission a key assumptions letter, which is an introductory step towards the federal licensing of a nuclear power plant. TVA stated that it will seek to construct up to six small 125MW Babcock & Wilcox mPower design modular reactors near Oak Ridge, Tennessee at its Clinch Valley site in Roane County. The NRC sent a reply and meeting with TVA and the NRC was then held on December 14, 2010. Furthermore, Hyperion Power Generation has signed a memorandum of understanding with Savannah River Nuclear Solutions to build a prototype SMR at the Department of Energy’s sprawling Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex in South Carolina. Other states are also keeping a watchful eye as these “mini-nukes” go through the NRC certification process.

Stop Bellefonte SACE Close UpWhat you can do: Help the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and our allies take action to prevent SMR’s and further expansion of the nuclear industry.

• Mark your calendars and attend the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) meeting on January 6 and 7, 2011 regarding the fate of commercial spent fuel at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. This Commission was created at the request of President Obama on January 27, 2010 to “conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, including all alternatives for the storage, processing, and disposal of civilian and defense used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.”

  • Tell the Blue Ribbon Commission that the inherent dangers with nuclear power technology need to be recognized and viable energy solutions such as wind, solar, bioenergy, energy efficiency and energy conservation must be at the forefront of U.S. energy policy.
  • View an alert from our allies in South Carolina, the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, about the Blue Ribbon Commission meeting at SRS in January.

• Let the TVA board know that pursuing another costly, risky nuclear boondoggle is a waste of ratepayer and taxpayer money when clean, safe energy options exist. TVA already has too many eggs in the nuclear basket – “mini nukes” are another step in the wrong direction.

  • Send TVA a quick comment by clicking on “Talk to TVA” on their website.
  • Attend a TVA board meeting and let them know your concerns. The next one is February 18, 2011 in Chattanooga. Find the schedule here.

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Your supporting arguments are mostly based on hearsay. Where’s the scientific approach to really quantifying and measuring the pros and cons?

Comment by Rick Maltese on December 25, 2010 12:50 am

Using leftist organizations as references does not inspire much confidence in your allegations, given the deceptions routinely practiced by such outfits.

The actual risk from the smaller reactors is generally significantly less than the larger nuclear units because the former are largely located under ground. The smaller reactors are also generally passively fail-safe; the fuel can not melt. The nuclear waste is also much less. However, one needs to look at the particular design because the SMR’s are not all the same.

Small modular reactors really need to be viewed in the context of viable alternatives, which is basically the gas turbine. Renewable energy is not a realistic alternative owing to high costs caused by the unreliability and limited production capability of wind and solar energy. If the natural gas discoveries from fracturing shale continue to become more widespread, then the small modular reactors can not economically compete in the US. Ditto for renewable energy.

Comment by Mike Keller on December 25, 2010 1:48 am

Just curious – why does a site that claims to focus on clean energy have such a negative response to nuclear energy? Unlike all other reliable power sources, it is clean enough to operate inside a sealed submarine.

There has been a long campaign of denial about the proven fact that fission has been remarkably successful in displacing fossil fuels and thus eliminating CO2 emissions.

I suspect that fact is uncomfortable for those who sell fossil fuels for a living. Smaller reactors have been operating safely and securely for more than 50 years. They are not a new idea, just a way to bring the benefits of emission free, reliable power to markets that fossil fuels have always dominated.

Comment by Rod Adams on December 25, 2010 12:31 pm

Merry Christmas Y’all! Comment’n on some of the comments.

Question: Just curious – why does a site that claims to focus on clean energy have such a negative response to nuclear energy? Answer: Nuclear energy is dirty, straps future generations with radioactive poisons, it is dangerous, nuclear managers deceive the public creating mistrust and the nuclear fuels process kill workers and pollutes. Nuclear power is not clean, saying nuclear power is clean is propaganda and deceit.

Quote: “Using leftist organizations as references does not inspire much confidence in your allegations…” Reply: You refering to the TVA, NRC and the DOE as leftist organizations?

Statement: “Your supporting arguments are mostly based on hearsay.” Fact: The nuclear fuels process and its waste has sickened and killed thousands, it is the nuclear industry’s deadly secret, that is not hearsay, it is fact.

Comment by Garry Morgan on December 25, 2010 10:39 pm

@Garry – do you have any references for your assertions about the health impacts of the nuclear fuel cycle? The public reporting requirements associated with nuclear energy requires notification when a nuclear plant spills nearly pure water with tritium concentrations measured in picocuries. You are alleging an enormous conspiracy to hide far worse events.

The biggest beneficiary of restrictions on nuclear energy is the established fossil fuel industry. As we know from the work of Desmogblog, that industry is pretty good at deception techniques. I think you are one of their victims.

Comment by Rod Adams on December 26, 2010 9:07 pm

If we all did our part to conserve energy and generate a little bit of our own, they wouldn’t be talking about new ways to produce nuclear energy. I have solar hot water with natural gas back-up, and my gas bill is unbelievably low! The Organic Mechanic has a wide variety of products (solar, wind, etc) to become more sustainable. They are dedicated to the green movement.

Comment by suzanne on December 26, 2010 11:01 pm

As noted above, this piece appears to have been written by powerful special interests in competition with the new small modular reactors. A lot of corrupt and wealthy groups stand to lose many billions of dollars if safe, reliable small nuclear reactors can be made affordable.

If you want to win a cheap and slutty debate worthy of journalists, you are taking the right approach. But if you want to get to the truth of the matter, you must get down and dirty with the actual numbers, using valid sources.

This “pseudo-green” trend of attacking reliable forms of energy while leaving the public with unreliable, non-baseload, non-dispatchable forms of energy, needs to stop.

Comment by Alice Finkel on December 27, 2010 2:23 am

The private contractor which runs the Savannah River Site, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, has pitched SMRs as part of a “potential alternative to Yucca Mountain.” Those that are advocating that SRS as the new Yucca Mountain would be well advised to tread softly about pushing plans to dump the nation’s high-level waste on us here in South Carolina. If SRNS wants to even ponder SRS as a waste dump, then let’s see them put forward 100% private money to go down that rocky road. Time to cut the big-government apron strings for projects at SRS and other DOE sites which benefit special interests and stiff the tax payer with the cost.

Comment by Tom Clements on December 28, 2010 11:45 am

Rod I appreciate your request, I attempted to list several links to prove my point, unfortunately this site said I was listing spam. So much for this argument, the links included Department of Labor stat links, NIRS links and video links.

I will say, there is much information on the web concerning the dangers of the nuclear fuel cycle. The Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) has considerable information-”health hazards of nuclear fuels,”, Department of Labor has considerable information on Energy Workers Compensation Act, “Wild Clearing-Thru the Ice Ages” has several documentary videos from sick and now dead nuclear fuels workers. Maybe the DOL links for Paducah and Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion plants will list, the list concerns financial compensation paid for claims and death.
Total claims paid to workers in the nuclear fuels process is in excess of $6.5 billion.

Comment by Garry Morgan on December 28, 2010 1:31 pm

Though nuclear power may appear at first look to be clean and safe, there are hidden ways that it is neither. The entire nuclear fuel-to-waste cycle is replete with adverse health effects, risks of and actual spills and contaminations, low-level radioactivity releases that can accumulate in tissues over time, possible large mistakes with catastrophic results in the operation of nuclear power plants, and risks of terrorist or other sabotage and diversions of radioactive materials. Many web sites provide links to and direct evidence of these risks.

Comment by Dr. Ross McCluney on December 28, 2010 2:40 pm

Interesting that you decry another “taxpayer-funded handout” for the nuclear industry, but have no such qualms about public money being spent to support solar energy ($7 million from University of Tennesee solar center) or $5 million from EPA — directly to SACE — to support cleaner diesel rigs. While I recognize the latter two are consistent with SACE’s goals for ‘clean energy’ (whatever that is), it appears the government’s goal (or largesse) is to support a variety of energy projects that can help ensure a diverse and secure energy mix in the U.S. The fact is neither solar nor wind energy is competitive without government subsidies — SACE shouldn’t be so quick to bite the hand that feeds it and its allies.

Comment by Frank Talk on December 28, 2010 3:45 pm

Jamaica will probably be one of the first customers for a SMR, or perhaps, Hawaii. In fact there is a huge market in Indonesia, Philippines, Micronesia, Caribbean, etc. to displace diesel electrical generation. Peak Oil exists. The Gulf Oil states including the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are ordering a large number of Gen III pressurized water reactors, because it is financially wise to sell as much oil as possible on the world market under the conditions of rising oil prices/oil scarcity, rather than burn it in generating electricity that nuclear can generate at 2 cents/Kw hour, i.e. cheaply. Continued diesel generation of electricity will be financially more and more onerous for these islands, as they well know. They are also more aware than most of the danger of CO2 pollution and consequent rising sea levels. Perhaps this is one reason that they are able to examine the issues of SMRs and nuclear energy without the hackneyed fear and ignorance typical of many American greens. Please see:

by Zia Mian, a retired senior World Bank official, at present is director general of the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR)

Comment by Paul Wick on December 29, 2010 1:35 pm

The subsidies for nuclear energy have grown to hundreds of billions of dollars. See the book, “Fiscal Fission” by Charles Komanoff (online) to get a sense of the enormity of nuke subsidies. Yet, at 50+ years worth of massive subsidies, they still need massive annual subsidies to limp along at near 0% growth. Solar and wind, while subsidized in your mentioned millions per year, are quickly becoming cheaper and cheaper, now both being cheaper than nukes.
See the following U.S. Government website that shows that all renewables now equal the output of nuclear, with a tiny fraction of the subsidy given to nukes.

Comment by Russell Lowes on December 29, 2010 2:48 pm

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