First SMR domino falls, potentially to start cascade

Nuscale SMR-DOE

Same financial risks viewed as generic to entire reactor type

The nuclear industry is rattled by an Opinion piece appearing in the January 31, 2024 edition of the energy trade journal Utility Dive. The article, astutely entitled “The collapse of NuScale’s project should spell the end for small modular nuclear reactors,” is an extensively documented study of yet another nuclear folly.  Its author, M.V. Ramana, the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security and Professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, carefully focuses on the financial collapse of what was heralded to be the first units of a bow wave of mass produced small commercial power reactors to be constructed and operated in the United States. NuScale Power Corp, the Portland, Oregon based company that started up in 2007, was supposed to be the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) poster child to mass produce the first US Small Modular Reactors (SMR)  owned and controlled by US nuclear giant and thermonuclear weapons manufacturer Fluor Corporation.    Instead, on November 9, 2023, NuScale was announced as just another financial causality in a growing tally of nuclear projects stymied by uncontrollable cost and a recurring pattern of delay after delay.  In this case, however, NuScale fell victim  even before its selected reactor design could be certified by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a viable license for the groundbreaking ceremony.

The NuScale pilot project’s initial goal was to license, construct and operate twelve contiguous units, (50 to 60-megawatts electric (MWe) each for a total up to  720 MWe of generating capacity per site), housed in a single reactor building with one control room. On the promise that this would be safer, cheaper and quicker to build and operate, the NuScale SMR is really just a redesign of a decades-old technology for the impossibly expensive and larger (800 to 1150 MWe per unit) commercial pressurized water reactors operating on license extensions today. Yet, even with this extensive experience going back to the 1960’s, the redesign has not yielded to be any more reliable for estimating cost-of-completion, time-to-completion or affordable operation. In fact, with the industry’s abandonment of the design and construction of new reactors on “economies of scale,” the prospect for generating affordable electricity from  small “mirage” reactors has apparently only become more unattainable.

The NuScale pilot reactor construction site was awarded by the DOE on the federally owned Idaho National Laboratory (INL) near Idaho Falls. NuScale worked out a deal for its projected electricity customer base on a contract with the Utah Associated Municipal Power System (UAMPS), an electric cooperative of 50 cities in seven western states incentivized by a DOE federal government payout to would be customers of up to $1.4 billion over ten years.

But despite the federally promised awards to reduce nuclear power’s certain financial risks to customers, Ramana documents the NuScale and UAMPS struggle with first building its power purchase subscriptions from members who would shortly run for the designated “exit ramps” scheduled into the contract. As these municipalities pulled out of the nuclear project because of financial concerns, UAMPS and NuScale renegotiated the project’s generating capacity down to six units each rated at 77 MWe for a total generating capacity of 462 MWe. The reactor design’s safety, however, is still problematic and uncertified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and now demonstrated to be yet another expensive “house of cards.” Like the previous “nuclear renaissance” initiated by Congress and the nuclear industry in 2005, of the 34 “advanced” Generation III units put forward by industry, only one unit (Vogtle unit 3) is commercially operable today and another unit (Vogtle unit 4) still under construction. The initial $14 billion project in Georgia is now approaching as much as $40 billion to show for it.

In a follow-on article in the February 3, 2024 edition of DownToEarth, M.V. Ramana and Farrukh A. Chishtie are co-authors of “Tripling nuclear energy by 2050 will take a miracle, and miracles don’t happen” which identifies the same dangerous wild goose chase to expand nuclear power that is destined to fail climate change mitigation on the global scale.

Chishtie and Ramana expertly rebut the deluded notion as presented by the United States former Special Envoy on Climate Change John Kerry at the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) in Dubai, UAE.  They cite “the hard economic realities of nuclear power” historically to date  as the principal reason nuclear power cannot be scaled up from what can only be termed a preposterous level by 2050.  That will be far too late by most accounts to abate an accelerating climate crisis.

“The evidence that nuclear energy cannot be scaled up quickly is overwhelming. It is time to abandon the idea that further expanding nuclear technology can help with mitigating climate change. Rather, we need to focus on expanding renewables and associated technologies while implementing stringent efficiency measures to rapidly effect an energy transition.

Support Beyond Nuclear

Help to ensure a safer, greener and more just world for all