Wednesday, October 24, 2012

More on Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

The future of conventional, large-scale nuclear power in the US is being stymied by the Obama Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Expansion of large scale US nuclear power plants is also being held back by large up front costs and frivolous litigation costs. In addition, current low prices for natural gas make it difficult to justify going through the torturous regulatory, legal, and financial gauntlets that building an old style, full scale nuclear power plant requires.

Consequently, more and more people are beginning to look at small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) as a way out of this impasse.

SMRs are nuclear reactors that are intentionally designed to be less than 300-megawatts, or about one-third of the size of conventional large reactor. By making them small, they have several key benefits not available to large reactors. These issues are discussed at length in a new American Security Project (ASP) report, “Small Modular Reactors: A Possible Path Forward for Nuclear Power.”

First, SMRs offer flexibility. Since they are small, they can be added to the electric grid incrementally. Slow incremental additions better match the slow energy demand growth in the United States, which is projected to be less than 1% per year. Utilities have little interest in building a huge nuclear reactor when demand is not rising quickly enough to justify the investment.

Second, SMRs are designed with several safety features that are an improvement over large reactors. By using simpler designs with fewer coolant pipes and components, the risk of a safety accident declines.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, SMRs have an advantage in cost over large reactors. While a typical large reactor can cost between $6 and $9 billion, an SMR has an estimated price tag of only $250 million for a 100-megawatt reactor. With smaller upfront costs and shorter construction timeframes, utilities can get loans with lower interest rates.

Despite these advantages, no SMR has been constructed to date. Why isn’t the industry building SMRs right now? The biggest obstacle for SMRs is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has licensed no SMR design.

A second impediment is the lack of a track record on performance. Without an example to point to, the burden is on the nuclear industry to prove that the advantages of SMRs discussed above are indeed an improvement over conventional reactors. Until the first plant moves ahead, uncertainty remains.

A third problem is low natural gas prices. The nuclear industry remains bullish on their prospects over the long-term, and with assets that last 60 years, it is essential to not get swept up in the latest hype. However, low natural gas prices present real problems for industry, at least in the near-term.

Whoever occupies the White House come January 2013, the administration will need to lay out an ambitious energy agenda, one that will shape our energy mix for years to come. Nuclear power will likely play a prominent role in America’s energy future, but in order to do so, the nuclear industry must chart a new course. SMRs offer a possible path forward. _The Hill
A new report [PDF download] on small modular reactors (SMRs) is available from the American Security Project.



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