'Advanced' Nuclear Reactors: No Climate Cure

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Politicians frequently cite the need to “throw everything” at the effort to win the global struggle against greenhouse gas emissions. But when it comes to “advanced” nuclear reactor technologies, it’s worth asking whether that’s a wise course. Contrary to claims by their promoters, these technologies are not new, nor are they necessarily safer, more secure, economically competitive, or less of a proliferation risk. Instead of doling out billions of taxpayer dollars for dubious projects based on dated technologies that haven’t worked and will struggle for years to get deployed, assuming they ever do, legislators should focus on proven technologies — renewables that can be deployed in a matter of months or a few years, flexible grids optimized for matching supply with demand, and energy conservation — and get the job done.

Some of the "advanced" reactor designs now under development are tweaked versions of older ones that failed when they were tried in the early days of atomic energy — notably, for example, a “fast neutron reactor” in Michigan called Fermi-1. Fast reactors, cooled by sodium, were particularly vulnerable to fires. They could not work without continuous reprocessing of used fuel, which proved expensive and increased the risk of proliferation because the process involved separating plutonium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. Commercial versions later developed in France were a disaster.

The US ended the Atomic Energy Commission (predecessor to the Department of Energy (DOE)) “fast” reactor and reprocessing development program under President Jimmy Carter after it had spawned India’s nuclear-weapons program and others that fortunately were terminated. But advocates of that and other “advanced” non-water-cooled reactor technologies subsequently proved adept at securing enough funding to keep pet projects alive.

In the 1990s, the DOE began promoting these technologies again, and they became part of President George W. Bush’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), launched in 2006, as a “comprehensive strategy to increase US and global energy security, encourage clean development around the world, reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation, and improve the environment.” Bush’s effort to kick-start a nuclear “renaissance” also promoted construction of a new generation of large-scale conventional nuclear reactors aided by US government loan guarantees. A Democratically controlled Congress eventually pulled the plug on GNEP after it became clear that it would make spent fuel management more rather than less costly as the Bush administration had claimed.

Meanwhile, even before Fukushima in 2011, would-be reactor developers in the US were dropping by the wayside in the face of rising costs and unrealistic expectations. Of more than 30 reactors for which construction applications were filed with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, only four — two Westinghouse reactors each in South Carolina and Georgia — eventually went ahead. By 2017 both projects were so far over budget and time that Westinghouse was forced into bankruptcy with its parent company Toshiba facing some $9 billion in potential losses. The South Carolina project eventually collapsed, and two key utility executives went to prison for lying to ratepayers and investors about the project’s prospects. Georgia Power, on the other hand, went ahead and is now close to delivering 2.2 gigawatts of power from its Vogtle project for a whopping total cost of some $34 billion, more than double its $14 billion original estimate.

Small Reactor Push

This backdrop is important: it sets the context for DOE’s most recent push into small reactors, promising “significant” advantages such as “relatively small physical footprints, reduced capital investment, ability to be sited in locations not possible for larger nuclear plants, and provisions for incremental power additions.” In fact, in its effort to keep the US nuclear industry from collapsing DOE had no other choice but to turn to smaller reactors just to get around the problem of extraordinarily high capital costs for larger reactors, which no US utility could justify for either ratepayer or taxpayer support.

The effort initially focused on a small light-water modular reactor (so-called because the main parts can be built in a factory and assembled onsite), developed by NuScale that DOE said was “safe, simpler, and less expensive to build and operate.” DOE had been funding this effort on a relatively small scale since the early 2000s, and as early as 2008 NuScale told the NRC it intended to submit a design certification application in 2010, with a construction license application to follow a year later. These efforts were delayed by more than a decade.

In 2020, with the project already behind schedule, the DOE awarded NuScale a $1.4 billion cost-share agreement, saying the plant would begin operation in 2029. That same year DOE announced funding for a spate of “advanced” non-light-water reactors, with two in the lead — TerraPower’s sodium-cooled fast reactor Natrium and X-energy’s Xe-100 high temperature gas reactor.

None of these reactors is expected to operate this decade — TerraPower has already extended its projected start-up to 2030 and NuScale's development partner, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (Uamps), is facing an uphill struggle to sign on member utility offtakers. Both TerraPower and X-energy depend on securing fuel much more highly enriched than conventional low-enriched uranium fuel, which is not currently available in the US.

Uncomfortable Realities

The smaller-is-better approach glosses over other disconcerting facts as well. DOE claims these reactors will be inherently safer, as well as offering “distinct safeguards, security and nonproliferation advantages.” But they still would contain large quantities of radioactive materials, and could be sited close to large urban populations without the same protective emergency zones and planning that regulators require for larger reactors.

Meanwhile, the lower total overall cost of smaller reactors does not negate the uncomfortable reality that unit operating costs in such plants are far higher than for conventional reactors. That’s why the US industry, which started with small reactors back in the 1950s and ‘60s, gradually moved to larger ones. In January NuScale put construction costs for its 77 megawatt SMR at $20,000 per kilowatt, which is 250% higher than the original 2014 costs for the large-scale reactors at Vogtle. By comparison the construction cost of utility-scale solar and onshore wind is around $1,500/kW. The capacity factors of renewables are admittedly lower but far from low enough to offset the high capital and operating costs of new nuclear.

Uamps argues that its most recent power cost estimate for the NuScale SMR at $89/MWh — a 53% increase over its previous 2020 estimate — is in line with what it expects carbon-free power to cost in 2030.

The Bottom Line

Costs aside, the bottom line at this point is time. Even if all their design, construction, regulatory and financing challenges could be solved the current batch of “power point reactors” won't begin to materialize until at least the next decade, and even that's not guaranteed. Hence most utilities both in the US and overseas are taking a wait-and-see approach to these experiments, and only the US and Canada have large government-run programs to promote them. Even with this government backing, there is little to suggest the kind of coordinated effort necessary for a major build-out. Hundreds of such reactors would be needed to begin to make a difference.

“The only message I want to leave you with is that no one really understands your plans,” DOE Loan Program Director Jigar Shah told a nuclear industry symposium in October. “No one really understands how you commercialize nuclear power.”

Climate change isn’t waiting. “We face a humongous crisis not only in terms of climate but air pollution and energy security,” Stanford University expert Mark Jacobson told a webinar last week. These “require immediate and drastic solutions. Any technology that takes 10 years between planning and operation is really no solution at all.” When it comes to SMRs and advanced reactors 10 years is an optimistic scenario.

Stephanie Cooke is the former editor of Nuclear Intelligence Weekly. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

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