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

This blog was written by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | December 24, 2010 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

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.

What 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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