(Photo via GE Hitachi)

Renewed interest — and criticism — for small modular reactors

A new, smaller breed of nuclear reactor that is being promoted by the Obama administration may offer some advantages over the larger reactors that now provide about 20 percent of the United States’ electricity, but critics say they also have the same drawbacks.

While nuclear plant construction is largely a thing of the past in the U.S., the new smaller paradigm – and the $452 million in federal funds aimed at pushing it forward – has generated a lot of interest. At least four consortia of engineering and utility firms are now developing designs and licensing standards, and competing for federal funds.

One industry group, led by engineering/construction firms Babcock & Wilcox and Bechtel, has been awarded federal funds and plans to have its first small modular reactor (SMR) operating at a site in Tennessee by 2022.

The Obama administration is aiming for 20 plants by 2030 and 50 plants by 2040.

FirstEnergy, a utility that serves Ohio and part of the mid-Atlantic region, is a member of two of the industry consortia. Although the company has no current plans to add SMRs, FirstEnergy spokeswoman Jennifer Young said, “We think it will have a place in the FirstEnergy footprint in the future.”

Given a flagging demand for electricity and a low price of natural gas, she said, “Right now, SMRs are not competitive. But we think they will be in the future. Gas prices won’t remain this low forever.”

The smaller-scale reactors could be a good fit eventually, she said, because they presumably would cost less upfront, and could provide additional power in modest increments. SMRs likely would generate perhaps 200 or 300 megawatts, compared to existing nuclear plants which typically generate about 1,000 megawatts.

Exelon, a Chicago-based utility that gets about 55 percent of its energy from nuclear plants, sees a different sort of potential.

“We don’t have any interest in building and owning these,” said Craig Nesbit, vice president for Exelon generation communications. Instead, Exelon sees itself operating SMRs for municipalities, small power companies and coops, or industries that wish to own an SMR, but don’t have the expertise to run one.

Exelon is collaborating with three of the consortia working on design and licensing issues.

In Iowa, MidAmerican Energy has also expressed interest in the technology. And a bill in the Illinois legislature would modify the state’s restrictions on new nuclear projects to allow “pilot projects” of less than 160 MW.

But skeptics predict that nuclear power in a small package will retain many of the problems of nuclear power in a large package.

“It’s taking things in the wrong direction,” said Edwin Lyman, a physicist and senior scientist at the Union for Concerned Scientists, headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has concerns about the financial and safety aspects of small nuclear plants.

“This is a technology in search of a user.”

A month ago, Taxpayers for Common Sense bestowed its “Golden Fleece” award on the federal subsidy for the SMR concept. The group’s president, Ryan Alexander, said that given across-the-board cuts in federal spending, the time seemed ripe to spotlight proposed new federal spending to foster development of a new nuclear technology.

The government should not pick “winners and losers” in the energy sector, she said, particularly when it means subsidizing a “mature industry” like the nuclear industry that “should be able to pay for its own evolution.”

Advantages of a smaller size

Backers of the technology, however, say it could become more cost-effective over time.

The small size of modular reactors makes them well-suited to locations that couldn’t accommodate a typical 1,000 megawatt reactor, such as rural areas, small grids and small utilities, said Glenn Neises, nuclear director and chief nuclear officer for Burns & McDonnell, a Kansas City-based engineering firm that is working with Westinghouse to develop an SMR design.

“It’s more feasible for more utilities to adopt into their portfolio.”

He sees other advantages. It’s projected that SMRs could be built in two to three years, compared to four years or more for the larger reactors.

Plans call for small modular reactors to be manufactured in one or two pieces that would then be shipped to a site and assembled there. The theory is that repeated manufacturing would increase efficiency and speed, and perhaps decrease cost over time.

Redefining nuclear-plant development as largely a manufacturing – rather than a construction – process is “one of the key things” that sets this apart from the last generation of nuclear plants, according to Rebecca Smith-Kevern, director of light water reactor technology for the U.S. Department of Energy.

“It could improve the quality and the cost profile. It could make the economics more favorable,” she said.

Nesbit, from Exelon, compared building the reactors to an automobile assembly line. Bringing a standardized process, standardized equipment and workers with experience would simplify and shorten the process, lower the price, and probably reduce the odds of mishaps.

The nuclear times have changed, according to Smith-Kevern.

Since the earliest nuclear plants were constructed, she said, “We’ve learned a lot. Improvements are occurring.”

Questions about cost

Lyman, the physicist from the Union of Concerned Scientists, says nuclear technology “has turned out time and again to be more expensive and complicated” than promised.

Nuclear energy production in this country began with plants about the size of SMRs, he said. They gradually grew bigger, he says, because of economies of scale.

Lyman predicts that returning to smaller plants “will generate more expensive electricity.”

Costs are indeed a concern at the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia, where two new reactors are now under construction. An engineer appointed by the state’s utility regulator to monitor the process reported in December that the first reactor would be delayed by at least 12 months, hiking the cost by “hundreds of millions” of dollars.

The monitor also has reported delays in fabrication at a Louisiana plant of modules that eventually will be assembled on site. In December, the monitor attributed most of the delay in module manufacture to incomplete paperwork.

“They’re not reaping the benefits of modularity,” Lyman quipped.

Whether or not modules ultimately can increase efficiency and decrease costs, supporters of the SMR are enthusiastic about other aspects of its design. The Department of Energy stipulated that it wanted designs incorporating ”passive” safety features, which in large part are feasible because of the reactor’s small size.

While larger reactors depend on pumps and valves to move cooling water into a reactor in case of overheating, the theory is that the small plants now being developed could be cooled through natural forces. Convection would pull heat and radioactivity up, gravity would pull cooling water down from storage tanks into the reactor core which would be located below ground.

“Being smaller, there are a lot fewer precautions we will need to design for,” said Smith-Kevern. And the reactor’s location underground would make it much less vulnerable to weather and attacks from terrorists, she said.

She also anticipates many fewer employees than would be required at a larger nuclear plant.

“Staff,” she said, “is a significant cost.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists is a member of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News.

Karen Uhlenhuth is a writer in Kansas City, Missouri, whose work has appeared in The Kansas City Star and other publications. You can contact her at karen.uhlenhuth@gmail.com.

7 thoughts on “Renewed interest — and criticism — for small modular reactors

  1. In a somewhat desperate pitch to get a federal subsidy for Holtec’s SMR model, management at the Savannah River Site is presenting the reactor as a way to produce tritium for US nuclear weapons. Currently, weapons tritium is produced in TVA’s Watts Bar Nuclear Bomb Reactor (WBNBR) in Tennessee. The SRS effort to capture the tritium-production production and have DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration subsidize an SMR for that mission may be a reach too far. Lacking evidence that SMRs can be economical, SRS management is fixated on saying the future of the site is based on conceptual SMRs, causing some in SRS management to take its eyes off the urgent job at had: clean-up of nuclear waste.

  2. Small modular reactors have numerous potential benefits:

    – mass production can allow economic benefits from the learning curve effect
    – smaller capacity should be easier to finance
    – increased safety
    – a more diverse nuclear market should inspire better products (higher heat capacity, advanced fuel cycles, better process heat, a better waste system, more inherent safety features, etc.)

    If the public does not end up wanting any of these machines, then it will be a failure, but I think some of the new ideas for nuclear energy production, particularly those related to molten salt science, have incredible economic and commercial potential. If we can’t make this work, China certainly will as their current technical leaders are not ignorant of the scale of the energy challenge this century.

  3. I would think the NQA-1 would be similar to the federal safety regulations that the commercial air transportation industry like Boeing works under.
    Will all the design and engineering information/innovation be made public since all these SMR’s are publicly funded?
    Do you know what the expected thermal efficiency will be once the pumping, etc. loses are subtracted?
    Also would be a big advantage to design in variable output capability from say 50% to 100% over a 24 hour period or even better over 1 hour. If so it could be used to back up renewables. If not can it really be integrated with renewables on the grid?
    Where will run-in testing be done? I suppose the factory could have a permanent steam generator and turbine to test output and safety performance for qualification. If this has to be done on site, the skill and oversight would need to be onsite during startup and debug.
    Can the passive emergency shut down be tested at the factory? On site? Or is it even possible to test it at all because it would be a destructive test?
    If put on existing nuclear plant sites for security reasons, will the resulting output from that site be increased by the SMR output? If so does the transmission exist to carry this extra?
    I can see how the reactor and primary coolant system can be shipped as an enclosed unit but not the steam generator.Doesn’t the NSSS need to be connected to the steam generator on site? Would that not require the same reactor safety protocol as the factory built NSSS?

    Seems like bringing the SMR’s to market could be very risky. If all four of the companies in your article are competing for market share it may help get the customer (utilities) the best product for the lowest price. On the other hand if all decide to go to market it will dilute the amount of capitol available to tool up a factory for mass production. Since orders are likely to start out very slowly rather than the “large number of copies of the exact same product” they will not want to invest large sums of cash to tool up without a large number of orders on the books there by eliminating the lower cost of mass production. One or all of the competitors may be willing to build manually at substantially higher cost than mass production and sell at at loss for a while until the market shakes out. This is very risky and ,I think could bankrupt any one of them. I built special one of a kind machines for production of mass produced products for years. These machines ,though highly specialized,have far fewer parts both moving and otherwise than your standard automobile today. But because of the millions if not billions of dollars car companies spend on tooling for mass production they are 1/10th or less than the cost of a special machine. So I am well aware of the cost advantages of mass production just a little skeptical that SMR’s can take advantage of it until the market grows massively – not at all guaranteed.

  4. The US is currently building 5 reactors, so how is reactor-building a ‘thing of the past’?

  5. I believe the phrase we used is “*largely* a thing of the past.” As in, the five reactors currently under construction (and mentioned in the story) are far fewer than were built during the 1970s and 1980s. This chart provides an illustration.

  6. The smaller modular reactors are even more dangerous than the large ones:

    Here’s why:

    1. Mass production of nuclear power plants? That’s a recipe for disaster. Quality control is non-existent anywhere anymore. Just what we need, factory-made nuclear reactors with cost-cutting in mind.

    2. Stringing these reactors together when you want more power? Another recipe for disaster. If there’s a problem with one reactor, the others will fail in a domino effect.

    3. The smaller modular reactors have smaller containments. Another recipe for disaster. Containments should be larger, not non-existent.

    4. They want to truck these reactors all over the country whenever power is needed. Another recipe for disaster. Have you been on the roads lately?

    5. These smaller modular reactors would still be contributing to the unsolved problem of nuclear waste.

    Nuclear waste is the largest source of LONG-TERM DEBT that the world has.

    200,000 years to store Plutonium! The cost of that is INFINITE.

    Every new Energy dollar from this point forward should be spent on Renewable Energy.

    Nuclear energy only provides 8% of the energy in the U.S.

    It’s time for the nuclear investors to transition their energy portfolio into the 21st Century, into truly clean and green energy sources that don’t pollute the environment and people with nuclear radiation.

    At the most basic level, all energy companies should LOVE Renewable Energy because it doesn’t require them to be a slave to any type of FUEL…

    Renewable Energy doesn’t require oil, gas or uranium!

    Wind and solar energy are pure PROFITEERS.

    And if you really want to be smart, look into an energy the Department of Energy itself perfect decades ago.

    It’s called “hot dry rock geothermal.” No pollution and enough energy to power the world!

  7. “mass production can allow economic benefits from the learning curve effect”

    Where are the communities which would allow a new nuclear reactor to be installed in its back yard?

    And restrict your answer to those which have an adequate amount of cooling water.