Small is Ugly – the case against Small Modular Reactors

[With apologies to E.F. Schumacher, who wrote the important book Small is Beautiful]

“Don’t bet against technology. ” is the advice i give to people who are saying certain industrial developments wont happen, or will not happen soon.    There are breakthroughs everyday and most of them are not forecasted much in advance.   So why am i not excited about the recent Department of Energy’s decision to fund the development of Small Modular Reactor (SMR) designs ?

So the hype runs like this.  We want a reactor which is smaller because the big reactors are inflexible on the grid, often providing more power than an area (or even small countries) can use.  Small is flexible.  Small reactors can be built in factories and shipped to the site nearly complete – reversing the current ratio of 70% of the reactor built on site and 30% in the factory.  Mass production will help avoid cost overruns and delays which plague larger reactors.  Smaller reactors can be refueled less frequently and will require smaller staff to run.  We need a mix of energy solutions, rather than depending on just fossil sources and renewables.  The navy has successfully used small reactors to power aircraft carriers and submarines successfully for years.  Let’s just take this technology to the private sector.

SMR reactor design

Sounds pretty compelling right?  It is no surprise these reactors have broad bi-partisan support in congress.

Small is flexible.  But it turns out that 180 to 250 MW of these new designs is not actually small.  The obstacle Germany and other countries face as they move to increasingly renewable solutions is that these big point source power producers interfere with grid distribution, basically renewable electricity has to be routed around them.  This is why the closer of reactors is so important in terms of building a real flexible renewables feed network of microgrids.  Big reactors are a big problem for the grid, these small reactors are still big enuf to be a problem.

It is certainly possible that small reactors could be built in factories and shipped to sites nearly complete.  It is not a coincidence that large reactors have been built for so long and in so many places around the world by so many different engineering firms with some of the highest paid executives and engineers in the world.  I dont like them, but these are not stupid people.

There are huge fixed costs associated with getting reactors running at all.  You need tremendous water supplies, large grid connections, waste and fuel handling facilities – there are favorable economies of scale to large reactors.  The reason dozens of engineering firms in over 30 countries around the globe have built big reactors (and multiple units where ever they could) is not because they all made the same mistake, it is because to make this huge investment even begin to make sense you need to do it in a big way.  It is unclear if the mass production savings of SMRs will offset the economy of scale advantages of current designs.  And they certainly will not for the first handful of these SMRs.

The small reactors we find in nuclear military vessels produce electricity ridiculously high prices per kilowatt.  This is why no engineering firm is proposing these well understood designs for mass production.  The cost of naval small reactor power never becomes competitive, even if mass produced.  And nuclear naval vessels dont have to worry about cooling water, making them structurally cheaper than these proposed new SMRs.

The energy mix argument is a throw away.  We can generate energy by hooking teenagers with ipods up to stationary bicycles and running turbines.  We dont do this because it makes no economic sense.  Neither do nukes, large or small.

What is really happening is that the nuclear industry is not only not looking at the much hyped Renaissance, it is in it’s death throws.   At what was perhaps the height of the so-called Nuclear Renaissance, October 2010, 17 companies and consortium we applying for licenses to build 30 reactors in US. But by the beginning of 2011 over half of these projects had been officially abandoned, with most of the rest quite unlikely to ever be built.  Five reactors are under construction in the US, 2 in Georgia (Vogtle), 2 in South Caroline (VC Summer)  and Watts Bar II in Tennessee which was started  in 1973.  All of these plants are delayed and over budget, despite 4 of them having started construction in the last 18 months.

Add to this the lower price of natural gas, the continuing decreasing cost of renewables, Fukushima market jitters, the Obama administration cutting loan guarantees for new reactor construction and there is not much of a future for old style large reactors.  [It is worth noting in the first 10 months on 2012, renewable energy sources accounted for 46% of all new installed capacity in the US.]

natural gas prices US

Small reactors reduce costs by eliminating the secondary containment, increasing the chances nuclear accidents will not be contained.  There is still no rad-waste solution for these reactors.  Oh, and there are not even finished designs for these reactors, much less prototypes.

Don’t bet against technology.  But dont waste billions and decades researching unproven designs which will likely never be economical, when there are safer, cleaner, cheaper solutions at hand.

cheaper sqfer cleaner faster pro wind graphic

The good news is finally we are.