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A sceptical look at NuScam’s small nuclear reactor plans

Recent experience supports skepticism. Westinghouse worked on an SMR design for a decade before giving up in 2014. Massachusetts-based Transatomic Power, a nuclear technology firm, walked away from a molten salt SMR in 2018, and despite an $111 million dollar infusion from the US government, a SMR design from Babcock & Wilcox, an advanced energy developer, folded in 2017. While the Russians have managed to get their state-funded SMR floating, its construction costs ran over estimates by four times, and its energy will cost about four times more than current US nuclear costs. 
Eventually, every nuclear conversation turns to radioactive waste and safety. SMRs using a pressurized water reactor will continue to generate highly radioactive spent fuel, yet no country has a permanent solution for how to safely store this kind of waste.  ……..
small modular reactors suffer from many of the same problems as large reactors, most notably safety issues
“It would be irresponsible for the NRC to reduce safety and security requirements for any reactor of any size.”

The Smaller Is Better Movement in Nuclear Power, Are miniature reactors really safer? Mother Jones  LOIS PARSHLEY, 8 Mar 20, 

Huge computer screens line a dark, windowless control room in Corvallis, Oregon, where engineers at the company NuScale Power hope to define the next wave of nuclear energy. Glowing icons fill the screens, representing the power output of 12 miniature nuclear reactors. Together, these small modular reactors would generate about the same amount of power as one of the conventional nuclear plants that currently dot the United States—producing enough electricity to power 540,000 homes. On the glowing screens, a palm tree indicates which of the dozen units is on “island mode,” allowing a single reactor to run disconnected from the grid in case of an emergency. 

This control room is just a mock-up, and the reactors depicted on the computer screens do not, in fact, exist. Yet NuScale has invested more than $900 million in the development of small modular reactor (SMR) technology, which the company says represents the next generation of nuclear power plants. NuScale is working on a full-scale prototype and says it is on track to break ground on its first nuclear power plant—a 720-megawatt project for a utility in Idaho—within two years; the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has just completed the fourth phase of review of NuScale’s design, the first SMR certification the commission has reviewed. The company expect final approval by the end of 2020. The US Department of Energy has already invested $317 million in the research and development of NuScale’s SMR project.

NuScale is not alone in developing miniature reactors. In Russia, the government has launched a floating 70-megawatt reactor in the Arctic Ocean. China announced plans in 2016 to build its own state-funded floating SMR design. Three Canadian provinces—Ontario, New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan—have signed a memorandum to look into the development and deployment of small modular reactors. And the Rolls-Royce Consortium in the United Kingdom is working on the development of a 440-megawatt SMR……….
Critics of nuclear power, however, contend that small modular reactors suffer from many of the same problems as large reactors, most notably safety issues and the unresolved problem of what to do with long-lived radioactive waste. And opponents say that even in a smaller form, nuclear power is expensive—it’s one of the costliest forms of energy, requiring substantial government subsidies to build and run, not to mention insure. NuScale’s SMR is offering an artificial 6.5 cent-per-kilowatt-hour cap as an incentive to get its first project off the ground. Yet in September, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced that it had accepted a bid of electricity coming from renewables, with storage capacity that can deliver round-the-clock supply, at 2 cents a kilowatt-hour.
M.V. Ramana, the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the University of British Columbia, says that as renewable prices plummet, nuclear power just can’t compete. More than a third of US nuclear plants are now unprofitable or scheduled to close. Globally, nuclear energy now only supplies 11 percent of electricity, down from a record high of 17.6 percent in 1996. After the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, Germany decided to close its nuclear industry altogether, and countries like Belgium, Switzerland, and Italy have declined to replace existing reactors or move forward with plans for new ones. ……
Making reactors smaller isn’t a new idea; in fact, the first civilian SMR was commissioned as early as 1955. It was built in Elk River, Minnesota, overran its budget by $9.8 million, and operated only three-and-a-half years before cracks appeared in its cooling system. Since then, commercial reactor sizes have only grown. ………
Many of the SMR designs in development simply shrink the systems of large-scale nuclear plants, using less fuel. NuScale’s reactor will be just 76 feet high. More than 125 NuScale reactors could be put in a traditional reactor’s containment building, though the company plans to deploy them in groups of 12.
……….Each reactor will be self-contained, with multiple reactors sharing a cooling pool.
In 2015, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, a utility that provides power throughout six states in the West, agreed to build the first NuScale reactor. With financial support from the Department of Energy, the utility has selected a site within the department’s Idaho National Laboratory, near Idaho Falls, Idaho. “The process is very long, very tedious, and very expensive,” says Ross Snuggerud, NuScale’s chief of engineering operations. “There’s a $1.4 billion barrier to getting the design approved that the government’s created.” Still, Reyes says the company plans to have the reactors operational by 2027.
In Derby, England, the Rolls-Royce Consortium is working on another SMR design—this one for a 440-megawatt reactor, slightly outside the range usually considered small, although Rolls-Royce believes it is the “sweet spot” for achieving economies of scale. The consortium plans to deploy its SMRs on former industrial sites, perhaps even on the grounds of shuttered large-scale nuclear power stations. The design is still in early phases, with Rolls-Royce saying that operation of its reactor is at least a decade away. To date, Rolls-Royce has received £18 million from the British government, and is requesting £200 million more.
Despite the financial and regulatory hurdles, both Rolls-Royce and NuScale anticipate a large market, including selling reactors to African and South American countries, where less robust grid systems might not support the energy load of traditional large-scale reactors. ……..
SMR opponents maintain that no matter the size, nuclear power has unresolved cost and safety concerns. To realize savings through mass manufacturing, there would need to be a standardized SMR design, critics say; currently, there are dozens. And SMRs would also have to be built in large quantities. But for a company to invest in making reactors and their components, it would need a reliable market, and many private investors are still wary of the new technology. Andrew Storer, CEO of the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Center, which forecasts markets for nuclear power manufacturers, says, as far far as supply chain companies go, “We’re advising people, ‘Don’t invest yet.’”
Recent experience supports skepticism. Westinghouse worked on an SMR design for a decade before giving up in 2014. Massachusetts-based Transatomic Power, a nuclear technology firm, walked away from a molten salt SMR in 2018, and despite an $111 million dollar infusion from the US government, a SMR design from Babcock & Wilcox, an advanced energy developer, folded in 2017. While the Russians have managed to get their state-funded SMR floating, its construction costs ran over estimates by four times, and its energy will cost about four times more than current US nuclear costs. 
Eventually, every nuclear conversation turns to radioactive waste and safety. SMRs using a pressurized water reactor will continue to generate highly radioactive spent fuel, yet no country has a permanent solution for how to safely store this kind of waste.  ……..
Because NuScale hopes to replace coal-fired power plants in the US and the UK, perhaps even building on the grounds of shuttered power plant sites in more populated areas, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering eliminating some standard safety measures, including a requirement for an emergency evacuation zone and the need for backup power. NuScale says that because SMRs contain smaller quantities of radioactive materials and can be sited underground, their risks are lower and they require less security staff.

This has raised sharp criticism from nuclear experts. Even the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has generally supported nuclear power, says, “It would be irresponsible for the NRC to reduce safety and security requirements for any reactor of any size.”

The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the need for new, carbon-free [?] energy is urgent.

Nuclear proponents have argued net-zero emissions will be impossible to achieve fast enough without relying on nuclear energy. But there’s no consensus in energy policy that this is true: Renewable energy has expanded faster  than expected, and as energy storage technology continues to improve, its potential is only growing.

“What really needs to happen at this point is for there to be competition among low-carbon energy sources, to see who can deliver the most benefit for carbon reduction at the least cost,” says Peter Bradford, a former member of

the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “I don’t have a problem with the government underwriting research in a different energy technology, as long as the research is proportional to the promise it has shown.” https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2020/03/the-smaller-is-better-movement-in-nuclear-power/

March 9, 2020 - Posted by | business and costs, Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

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