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SMRs – an oversold hype? 8 Jan 23 Writing in the venerable US journal Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Markku Lehtonen takes at look at Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), warning that they may be being oversold.  He says  ‘Despite the boost from the Ukraine crisis, it is uncertain whether SMR advocates can muster the political will and societal acceptance needed to turn SMRs into a commercial success. The economic viability of the SMR promise will crucially depend on how much further down the road towards  deglobalization, authoritarianism in its various guises, and further tweaking of the energy markets the Western societies are willing to go. Moreover, the reliance of the SMR business case on complex global supply chains as well as on massive deployment and geographical dispersion of nuclear facilities creates its own geopolitical vulnerabilities and security problems’.

A key issue for the selling of  SMRs is ease of deployment . Well it may not be as easy as some hope, although the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has recently moved to allow ‘advanced  nuclear plants’ to be built in thickly populated areas. The NRC decision entitled ‘Population-Related Siting Considerations for Advanced Reactors,’ was passed subject to one vote against from Commissioner Jeffery Baran, who said ‘multiple, independent layers of protection against potential radiological exposure are necessary because we do not have perfect knowledge of new reactor technologies and their unique potential accident scenarios… Unlike light-water reactors, new advanced reactor designs do not have decades of operating experience; in many cases, the new designs have never been built or operated before.’  

There may be other ways for NRC to smooth the path ahead .  NIRS/WISE Nuclear Monitor 904, reports on the views of  Dr Ed Lyman, from the US Union of Concerned Scientists, who says SMRs and Advanced Modular Reactors are likely to be expensive and he lists some other possible ways to ‘cut corners on safety & security to cut costs’, that the industry would like NRC to consider. Here are some of them:  

• Allow nuclear power plants to have a ‘small containment-or no physical containment at all’. 

• No offsite emergency planning requirements. 

• Fewer or even zero operators. 

• Letting the plants have ‘fewer NRC inspections and weaker enforcement.’ 

• ‘Reduced equipment reliability reporting.’ 

• ‘Fewer back-up safety systems.’ 

• ‘Regulatory requirements should be few in number and vague.’ 

• ‘Zero’ armed security personnel to try to protect an advanced nuclear plant from terrorists.

We are almost talking about a ‘wild west’  free for all!  Hopefully some sense will prevail. And a more balanced view of possibilities, risks and benefits will be taken, in the US, and also in the UK, where there are plans for developing 20-30 PWR-type SMRs as part of the UK plan to triple UK nuclear capacity by 2050. 

Will it really happen?  There certainly are  a lot of very different ideas being mooted,  beyond just mini-versions of Pressurised Water-cooled Reactors, including sodium cooled fast neutron reactors, molten flouride salt reactors, and high temperature helium cooled reactors. But as I explored in my recent book, looking back how these ideas emerged and were then abandoned in the early days of nuclear experimentation, I’m not convinced that any of the new nuclear, variants large or small, has much of a future. Renewables are arguably a far better bet. And I’m not alone in thinking that SMRs are not the way ahead.


January 8, 2023 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

1 Comment »

  1. SMR’s, fusion, coal to nuclear and natural gas as a “transition fuel” until renewable energy infrastructure is ready is all too expensive, too dangerous and totally unnecessary for our energy needs. Since the industry has bought all of the leaders from both parties in the Congress and state legislatures, it is up to “we, the people,” to not only oppose this, but to build a decentralized, parallel energy system, that is more independent, robust, sustainable, and resilient to stop this madness.

    Comment by paulrodenlearning | January 9, 2023 | Reply

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