Building small modular reactors senseless

Guest Blog | April 1, 2013 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

This article, written by Dr. Arjun Makhijani, was originally published in the Knoxville News Sentinel. Dr. Makhijani is the President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md.

TVA's Clinch River Site - Proposed for SMRs

The highly touted “nuclear renaissance” is ending with a whimper.

Private investors don’t want the risk of the huge investments new reactors require. At the same time, the price of other energy generation sources, including natural gas and wind energy, is lower than new nuclear.

Now the Tennessee Valley Authority is looking to Small Modular Reactors, betting that it will find gold at the end of that nuclear rainbow. The federal government has already chipped in $452 million of taxpayer money for Babcock & Wilcox and TVA to develop and certify the first SMR. The chosen design is called mPower.

The rationale for this venture was set forth at a recent University of Tennessee colloquium by Dan Stout, TVA’s senior manager for SMRs. He claimed mass-manufacturing techniques, the “economics of replication” in building multiple SMRs, would replace the “economies of scale” gained from large reactors.

Stout said the contracting challenge is that B&W can’t afford to build a factory for SMRs based on one order. The first unit for TVA most likely would be “cobbled together” at existing facilities, not on an assembly line dedicated to SMRs. But if B&W could get 100 orders for SMRs from countries such as China and India, he said, the company would be able to get financing to build a new factory with a dedicated assembly line.

According to current mPower estimates, 100 reactors would cost a total of $90 billion. Of course, that figure ignores the nuclear industry’s record of huge cost escalations. This is similar to the expense of setting up the assembly line for the Boeing Dreamliner.

Today’s mega-reactors are what Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive officer of General Electric, has called a “bet the company” risk because of their cost and size. SMRs don’t get rid of the risk of huge investments — they only transfer the risk from the reactor site to the reactor assembly line. It’s a shell game.

It also stretches credulity that China and India, the main centers of nuclear power construction today, along with Russia, would place orders for 100 reactors. Why would China, with 28 large reactors under construction and an established supply chain, not license the design and set up an assembly line in Shanghai or Chengdu? So a possible, even likely, outcome, in the event of technical success, is that the federal government subsidy to B&W and TVA would pave the way for an assembly line in China.

And what happens if a common design or manufacturing problem is discovered, as it was with Dreamliner batteries? How is a mass manufacturer of reactors, whose internals become radioactive after commissioning, going to recall them or their major components? Stout did not say.

Why does TVA want reactors that will have to be “cobbled together” and will not have the economies of scale of present reactors or the economies of an SMR assembly line, assuring that they will be more expensive than today’s reactors? Stout said he would look to the federal government for help but did not know if it would be forthcoming.

“We’re going to find out,” he continued. “I am not going to make your electric bills all triple because of this project … TVA won’t do that.”


But during the last nuclear binge of the 1970s and 1980s, TVA racked up more than $20 billion in debt, in large part from reactors that were never finished. Spending huge sums of money on a technology that generates dangerous plutonium as a waste product just to boil water makes even less sense today than it did in the 1950s. Better to go with renewable technologies, which are the future of energy.

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