SACE | Southern Alliance for Clean Energy
Small Modular Reactors
What is a small modular reactor (SMR)?
If you ask the non-profit, non-partisan taxpayer watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, SMRs are a taxpayer boondoggle. In fact, in February 2013 they awarded “The Golden Fleece” to the Department of Energy for federal spending on small modular reactors. But according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), small modular reactors are new reactor designs, not yet certified, that produce less than 300 megawatts of electrical output. In February of 2010, the NRC issued a call to would-be small reactor builders inquiring whether they would apply for permits, licenses and/or certifications in the near future. By the end of 2012, the Department of Energy (DOE) is budgeted to spend $452 million over the next five years, starting with $67 million the first year. The 2013 budget request is for another $65 million. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is currently pursuing plans to place four SMRs at their failed and abandoned Clinch River breeder reactor site in Tennessee. TVA optimistically projects receiving a license in 2017, and to begin operation in 2021. They originally discussed six SMRs and expected to apply for a construction application by late 2012 — that has been delayed to the second quarter of 2015. Other possible sites for SMRs include the DOE’s nuclear weapons complex, the Savannah River Site, in South Carolina and a site in Missouri. Of course, proponents claim that SMR technology won’t have the many problems that have plagued traditional, large-scale nuclear reactors such as cost, safety and highly radioactive nuclear waste. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
What are the dangers?
- High Cost: Funding SMRs is a waste of limited financial resources that could be better spent to develop greater energy efficiency and affordable, safe renewable energy sources. The DOE currently projects that it will spend $452 million in the next five years. After getting more subsidies than any other energy sector in the United States, it would seem nuclear power should be a thriving industry, but it is flagging at best. In fact, according to TVA, pursuing the SMR option is the most expensive option of those explored in their Bellefonte white paper (see page 13 for chart).
- Security: Several countries have expressed interest in pursuing SMRs. A particular country’s political stability, possible corruption and security forces that may not be properly trained to protect the technology and materials, which can be used to create nuclear bombs, are all concerns as SMRs are considered. “If sabotaged, even a 20-megawatt reactor could release a substantial amount of radiation … Do we really want a nuclear reactor on every island in the Indonesian archipelago?” said Dr. Edwin Lyman with the Union of Concerned Scientists. If the U.S hailed SMRs as the future of nuclear energy, it would be impractical if not impossible to simultaneously deny the technology to the rest of the world.
- Radioactive Waste: SMRs produce the same extremely toxic, highly radioactive and long-lived nuclear waste as larger reactors. Their small size would require that they be refueled more often, possibly increasing the amount of waste produced. In fact, SMRs could greatly complicate the disposal of nuclear waste. First, the use of SMRs would inevitably increase the number of designated locations for radioactive nuclear waste in the world, making it harder 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.
- Safety: Because of their small size, vendors of these reactors are proposing smaller evacuation zones, some as small as 1,000 feet, which would be insufficient to protect the public in the event of a radiation release.
With the nuclear industry and its proponents touting small modular reactors as the “solution to coal plant retirements,” it seems they are reluctant to admit that the so-called “nuclear renaissance” is dying before ever really taking off.
- Union of Concerned Scientists new report, Small Isn’t Always Beautiful.
- Taxpayers for Common Sense SMR backgrounder and related information regarding “The Golden Fleece” award
- Blogs from the Institute for Environmental and Energy Research (IEER) and SACE on small modular reactors
- TVA letter of intent to build SMRs and NRC overview of TVA’s SMR project
- NPR story featuring Dr. Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists
- Physicians for Social Responsibility and IEER factsheet on SMRs that details the different types of proposed designs and the associated risks