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Washington’s nuclear industry a costly failure for ratepayers. Now they’re about to fail again, with small nuclear reactors

Advanced Nuclear Dreaming in Washington State, CounterPunch, PATRICK MAZZA  19 Apr 21……………..The WPPSS default was part of the first wave of nuclear failures in the U.S. In the wake of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, approximately 100 proposed nuclear plants were cancelled. Recent years have seen a second round of failures. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 put $25 billion in nuclear subsidies on the table. That jumpstarted all of four nuclear reactors, two each in Georgia and South Carolina.  The only way Wall Street would touch the projects was to make ratepayers carry the risk by paying for “work in progress” before the first watt is delivered. South Carolina ratepayers won’t even see that. Cost overruns killed the project there in 2017 after $9 billion was thrown away, setting up a political and court fight over whether ratepayers will continue to be soaked.  The last two standing, Georgia’s Vogtle plants, were to have cost $14 billion and come on line in 2016-17. Now costs have doubled to $28 billion and scheduled completion this year and next is considered unlikely.

IS THE SMR A SOLUTION?

SMRs are the nuclear industry’s answer to avoid such failures in the future. Instead of being custom-built and individually licensed, SMRs are intended to cut costs by licensing a single design manufactured at a plant and sent for final assembly to their operating site.  Smaller than the 1,000-megawatt-plus plants with which we’re familiar, SMRs are 100 MW or less, and designed with safety features to prevent meltdowns such as experienced at Japan’s Fukushima plant in 2011. Though there are questions about that, as covered below.

X-energy’s proposed plant is 80 MW. The Washington partnership envisions clustering four to make a 320-MW complex, with costs estimated at $2.4 billion. Half is to come from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), and half from private investors, apparently leaving ratepayers out of the picture this time.

ARDP in 2020 made two $80 million grants to advanced nuclear reactor developers, one to X-energy, and the other to TerraPower, a venture in which Bill Gates has invested. The latter, slated to be 345 MW, aims at eventual scales as large as today’s plants, so it is not an SMR. The TerraPower liquid-sodium cooled reactor concept has its own set of issues. Liquid-sodium reactors have suffered operating difficulties and fires, and pose potential weapons proliferation hazards. The Raven will look at TerraPower in a future post……..

ROCKY ROAD TO MASS PRODUCTION

“The road to such mass manufacturing will be rocky,” Makhijani and M.V. Ramana write in a recent article, “Why Small Modular Reactors Won’t Help Counter the Climate Crisis.” “Even with optimistic assumptions about how quickly manufacturers could learn to improve production efficiency and lower cost, thousands of SMRs, which will all be higher priced in comparison to large reactors, would have to be manufactured for the price per kilowatt for an SMR to be comparable to that of a large reactor.”

That sets up “a chicken-and-egg economic problem,” they write. “Without the factories, SMRs can never hope to achieve the theoretical cost reductions that are at the heart of the strategy to compensate for the lack of economies of scale. But without the cost reductions, there will not be the large number of orders to stimulate the investments needed to set up the supply chain in the first place.”

That is leaving aside the prospect of a design defect being discovered after many SMRs have been deployed. In the 1990s, multiple Westinghouse-built reactors suffered common steam generator problems, resulting in lawsuits. “If an error in a mass-manufactured reactor were to result in safety problems, the whole lot might have to be recalled, as was the case with the Boeing 737 Max and 787 Dreamliner jetliners,” Makhijani and Ramana write. “But how does one recall a radioactive reactor? What will happen to an electricity system that relies on factory-made identical reactors that need to be recalled?”

The economic hurdles of SMRs posed by its competitors are overwhelming.

“Lazard, a Wall Street financial advisory firm, estimates the cost of utility-scale solar and wind to be about $40 per megawatt-hour,” Makhijani and Ramana write. “The corresponding figure for nuclear is four times as high, about $160 per MWh – a difference that is more than enough to use complementary technologies, such as demand response and storage, to compensate for the intermittency of solar and wind.”

While costs for competitors declines, nuclear costs continue to escalate. Cost for a proposed Idaho project by NuScale, another SMR developer, has doubled from an estimated $3 billion in 2015 to $6.1 billion in 2020  “long before any concrete has been poured,” Makhijani and Ramana note……….  https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/04/19/advanced-nuclear-dreaming-in-washington-state/

April 24, 2021 - Posted by | business and costs, Small Modular Nuclear Reactors, USA

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