Does “SMR” stand for “Squandering More Resources?”

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

Guest Blog | June 7, 2017 | Energy Efficiency, Energy Policy, Nuclear

What does the acronym “SMR” stand for? If you’re talking about plans for TVA’s Clinch River Site near Kingston, Tennessee there may be multiple answers. TVA and nuclear industry proponents would say you’re referring to a plan to possibly build up to 800 megawatts of new nuclear power technology known as Small Modular Reactors. But for those of us concerned with yet another untested, risky nuclear scheme, it stands for “Squandering More Resources” or “Squandering Money and Resources” on something that is clearly not needed, which TVA itself recently stated.

In fact, TVA has questioned investing again in new nuclear power given the costly experience they had with finishing Watts Bar 2 (which is offline for an undetermined period of time), as stated by Chief Executive Bill Johnson in a recent Reuters article, “‘You would really have to be brave to try it. We just finished one and I’m not anxious to try it again,’ Johnson said, referring to the 1,150-MW Unit 2 at TVA’s Watts Bar nuclear plant in Tennessee, which entered service in late 2016 at a cost of $4.7 billion.”

The public recently had opportunities to express their views on the proposal at a recent TVA Board meeting and also at two public environmental scoping meetings held by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in mid-May in Oak Ridge. SACE staff attended one of the NRC meetings and delivered comments questioning and opposing the expensive proposal. It was clear from those who attended that there was skepticism about TVA’s plans.

With TVA’s budgetary strains, spending money on an unproven technology is something customers cannot afford. According to a March 2017 Government Accounting Office report on TVA’s finances:

  • The total estimated costs for TVA to develop, submit and support the NRC application and review for SMRs is about $72 million and according to an interagency agreement with the Department of Energy (DOE), TVA is responsible for half these costs.
  • TVA spent around $23 million on SMR activities through FY 2015 and estimates spending about $5 million in FY 2016.
  • TVA will not decide to construct SMRs for at least 5 years; they do not need additional baseload power, and SMRs are cost-prohibitive.

The NRC, which oversees the licensing and operation of nuclear power plants, is beginning the development of a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to assess whether the previous abandoned Clinch River Site is suitable for small modular reactors given TVA’s application for an early site permit (ESP). Because there are no certified SMR designs, assessing exactly what the environmental and public health and safety impacts could be is difficult and some would argue is therefore premature to begin evaluating a particular site. The NRC would like to hear about your concerns and what issues should be addressed as they develop the draft EIS by June 12, 2017. Find out more about the problems with SMRs and how to submit comments here.

See below for comments at the May TVA Board meeting from Don Safer with the Tennessee Environmental Council and Know Nuclear Committee Chair for the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, who also delivered similar comments when he attended the NRC meeting.

Don Safer – Comments at TVA Board Meeting on May 11, 2017

I am Don Safer, from Nashville.  I serve on the Board of the Tennessee Environmental Council and as Know Nuclear Committee Chair for the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club. Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you.

I urge TVA to abandon its unnecessary small modular reactor project immediately. Nuclear power is neither clean nor green. Stop Squandering Money and Resources on this latest false hope of the DOE and the nuclear industry. The current early site permit application process will likely prove to be an exercise in futility as renewable energy generation growth will make SMR’s unnecessary long before any are built.

TVA has abandoned at least 13 nuclear reactors, many after billions were wasted. Much of TVA’s 25-billion-dollar debt is from these dead-end projects. Please stop wasting ratepayers’ money on nuclear energy.

The economics of small modular reactors do not make sense even with optimistic pre-construction cost projections. It is impossible to say how much actual spending would exceed these estimates, but it is almost certain to be substantial. Watts Bar 1 and 2 were originally projected to cost under $700 million, yet they were completed decades later at an acknowledged cost of over $13 billion. Watts Bar 2 is currently inoperable due to a structural failure in a 40-year-old steam condenser. It is unknown when repairs will be completed, but not for months.

The once hyped US SMR business is down to one manufacturer with two possible customers: TVA and UAMPS, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems. In 2009 TVA made a great decision when it withdrew from plans to be the first in the US to build the Westinghouse AP 1000 reactors. Construction delays and cost overruns have forced Westinghouse into bankruptcy and the VC Summer and Vogtle reactors may never be finished after billions have been spent.

Small modular reactors are too costly, too slow to bring on line, too uncertain, and have a high environmental impact and risk. Current national high level radioactive waste disposal practices would leave this dangerous waste on site for decades or much longer after final reactor shut-down.

The future belongs to renewable energy. All trends point in that direction. The global increase in renewables in 2015 was 63 GW of wind, 50 of solar, 28 of hydroelectric. Total nuclear capacity is going down, even France is moving away from nuclear power.

TVA should embrace the future and aggressively add renewable generation to speed up the retirement of coal, nuclear and gas facilities. TVA should partner with the Clean Line Project to lock in 2 cents per kilowatt hour electricity now. TVA should embrace all forms of solar energy and energy efficiency.

The sooner TVA starts changing course to put renewables first the smoother the transition will be.

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