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”Advanced” nuclear reactors not necessarily better. NuScale’s ”small” nuclear reactors not really small

  Johnson Loves Pie in the Sky nuClear News N0. 131 April 2021 ………….. NuScale In Jan 2021, a UK company, Shearwater, announced a partnership with US NuScale to develop 3GW hybrid off-shore wind/SMR plant to produce electricity & hydrogen. (9) The NuScale option, whether as a standalone plant or a hybrid with offshore wind, suffers from the fact that while the individual reactors are small, they are designed to be in as cluster of 12 – about 1GW capacity – making it effectively a large reactor. Until a project being built in the USA is completed and operating efficiently and economically, it will remain an unproven and risky investment. 
The NuScale SMR design is further ahead than Rolls Royce’s, since they have been working on it since 2003. It is a 77MW reactor designed to be deployed in clusters of 12 – so 924MW altogether. NuScale has only one potential project – Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) – with USDOE funding for part of the project but not sufficient investors yet for rest of project. 

M.V. Ramana (Liu Institute for Global Issues, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, The University of British Columbia) argues that higher construction and operational costs per unit of    electricity generation capacity will make electricity from SMRs more expensive than electricity from large nuclear power plants. An assessment of the markets for these technologies, suggests they are inadequate to justify constructing the necessary manufacturing facilities. (10) 
Economics of scale would suggest that SMRs would be more expensive per unit of electricity than large-scale reactors. Proponents argue that they can make up for the lost economies of scale by savings through mass and modularized manufacture in factories and resultant learning. Learning in this context refers primarily to the reduction of cost with increased construction. It is often quantified through a learning rate, which is defined as the percentage cost reduction associated with a doubling of units produced. Sustained learning would require just one or two standard reactor designs to be built in large quantities. However, there are roughly six dozen SMR designs are in various stages of development in multiple countries.

Although there is no data on jobs from SMRs—because SMRs have not been deployed at any meaningful level to measure employment figures—the literature is clear that nuclear power generates fewer jobs than renewables like solar and wind energy per unit of energy generated. (11) (12) 
Several advocates have argued that SMRs are capable of load following to balance intermittent renewables. From a technical point of view, shutting down, restarting, or varying the output power are all more challenging for nuclear power plants, especially water-cooled reactors, compared to other electricity sources. Further, although load following may be technically possible, operating reactors in this mode would decrease their economic competitiveness. The challenge arises from the fact that nuclear power plants have high fixed (capital) costs. Therefore, it makes more economic sense to operate them continuously near their maximum capacity in order to improve the return on investment. Given the already poor economic prospects for SMRs, this penalty will essentially rule out deployment of these technologies in a load-following mode.   

Ramana concludes that pursuing SMRs will only worsen the problem of poor economics that has plagued nuclear power and make it harder for nuclear power to compete with renewable sources of electricity. The scenario is even more bleak as we look to the future because other sources of electricity supply, in particular combinations of renewables and storage technologies such as batteries, are fast becoming cheaper. Finally, because there is no evidence of adequate demand, it is financially not viable to set up the manufacturing facilities needed to mass produce SMRs and advanced reactors. All of these problems might just end up reinforcing The Economist magazine’s observation from the turn of the century: ‘‘nuclear power, which early advocates thought would be ‘too cheap to meter’, is more likely to be remembered as too costly to matter’’.

 Professor Dave Elliott is also sceptical about claims that SMRs can reduce costs. Delivery of power at £40-60/MWh is promised, but there is still some way to go before any project actually goes ahead and we can see if the promises hold up in practice. He says most designs are basically variants of ideas proposed, and in some cases tested, many decades ago, but mostly then abandoned. The most developed is the NuScale reactor, which is basically PWR technology. Rolls Royce is also promoting a mini-PWR design, which, it is claimed, will be ready for grid use by 2030. Some of the other SMR proposals are less developed and may take more time to get to   that stage. But it is claimed that one of the more novel design, the Natrium fast reactor system, proposed by Terrapower and backed by Bill Gates, will be on line this decade. Given that this makes use of liquid sodium and molten salt heat storage, that is quite a claim.

If they are going to be economically viable, some say that SMRs will have to be run in Combined Heat and Power ‘Cogen’ mode, supplying heat for local used, as well as power for the grid. That implies that they will have to sited in or near large heat loads i.e. in or near urban areas. Will local residents be keen to have mini-nuclear plants nearby? That issue is already being discussed in the USA, with some urban resistance emerging. A key issue in that context is that it has been argued that since they allegedly will be safer, SMRs will not need to have such large evacuation zones as is the norm for standard reactors, most of which are sited in relatively remote area. (13)


  “Advanced” is not always better The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), examines all the proposed new types of reactor under development in the US and fails to find any that could be developed in time to help deal with the urgent need to cut carbon emissions. 

The US government is spending $600 million on supporting these prototypes. While the report goes into details only about the many designs of small and medium-sized reactors being developed by US companies, it is a serious blow to the worldwide nuclear industry because the technologies are all similar to those also being underwritten by taxpayers in Canada, the UK, Russia and China. This is a market the World Economic Forum claimed in January could be worth $300 billion by 2040. Edwin Lyman, who wrote the report, and is the director of nuclear power safety in the UCS Climate and Energy Program, thinks the WEF estimate is extremely unlikely. He comments on nuclear power in general: “The technology has fundamental safety and security disadvantages compared with other low-carbon sources.” He says none of the new reactors appears to solve any of these problems. The industry’s claims that their designs could cost less, be built quickly, reduce the production of nuclear waste, use uranium more efficiently and reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation have yet to be proved. The developers have also yet to demonstrate that the new generation of reactors has improved safety features enabling them to shut down quickly in the event of attack or accident. (14)   

One of the industry’s ideas for using the power from these reactors to produce “green hydrogen” for use in transport or back-up energy production is technically feasible, but it seems likely that renewable energies like wind and solar could produce the hydrogen far more cheaply, the report says. 


“Advanced” reactors often present greater proliferation risks, says Lyman. “In many cases, they are worse with regard to … safety, and the potential for severe accidents and potential nuclear proliferation. ‘Advanced’ Isn’t Always Better”. (15) 
Lyman says, if nuclear power is to play an expanded role in helping address climate change, newly built reactors must be demonstrably safer and more secure than current generation reactors. Unfortunately, most “advanced” nuclear reactors are anything but. A comprehensive analysis of the most prominent and well-funded non-light-water reactor (NLWR) designs   concluded that they are not likely to be significantly safer than today’s nuclear plants and pose even more safety, proliferation, and environmental risks than the current fleet. (16)    https://www.no2nuclearpower.org.uk/wp/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/nuClearNewsNo131.pdf

April 24, 2021 - Posted by | Small Modular Nuclear Reactors, UK, USA

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