What is a small modular reactor?

This blog was written by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | February 27, 2016 | Energy Policy, Nuclear, Tennessee

What is a small modular reactor (SMR)?

SMR image from July 2015 GAO Report
SMR image from July 2015 GAO Report

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Department of Energy (DOE), small modular reactors are reactor designs (of which there are no approved designs) that produce less than 300 megawatts (MW) of electrical output. But if you ask the non-partisan taxpayer watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, SMRs represent yet another taxpayer boondoggle. In fact, they gave the infamous “Golden Fleece Award” to the DOE in 2013 for federal spending on small modular reactors. Proponents claim that SMR technology won’t have the many problems that have plagued traditional, large-scale nuclear reactors such as cost, safety and highly radioactive nuclear waste but this couldn’t be further from the truth. And if you ask the Government Accountability Office (GAO), SMRs represent a technology that faces a number of technical, safety, regulatory, and economic hurdles to becoming commercially viable. We think SMRs, especially in terms of TVA’s proposal given they are not needed, stand for “Squandering More Resources.”

What is being proposed? Who is involved?

In February of 2010, the NRC issued a call to would-be small reactor builders inquiring whether they would apply for permits, licenses and/or certifications in the near future. By the end of 2012, the DOE was budgeted to spend $452 million over the next five years-a summary of what DOE has done can be found here, which is much different and far less than original projections. At one point there were many reactor design vendors but that list was whittled down to just three: NuScale, BWXT mPower and Holtec’s SMR-160. And currently, only the NuScale design really remains in play given the backing out of mPower. In January 2016, NuScale, which has received $217 million in funding support from the DOE, filed a design certification application with the NRC. Additionally the proposed FY2018 budget does not bode well for SMRs as it eliminates the SMR Licensing & Technical Support program.

TVA’s SMR Pursuit: With support from the Department of Energy’s effort to advance SMRs, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is currently pursuing plans to potentially build SMRs at their failed and abandoned Clinch River breeder reactor site in Tennessee. See a fly-over video here for the location. (There are other possible sites where SMRs are being discussed, such as at the DOE’s Idaho National Lab.) At one point TVA optimistically projected receiving a license in 2017 with operation in 2021. They originally discussed six SMRs and expected to apply for a construction application by late 2012 — but that was delayed significantly and an early site permit application (ESP) was filed with the NRC in May 2016 for two or more SMRs up to 800 MW. No specific design was specified; in fact, there are no certified SMR designs. Because of incomplete information included in TVA’s application, the NRC did not deem it sufficient until January 2017. Find SACE’s media statement here. The NRC is now developing a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The NRC held environmental scoping meetings in mid-May 2017 and collected public comments until mid-June. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) along with the Tennessee Environmental Council (TEC) filed a formal legal intervention on June 12, 2017. Find the filing here and media statement here.

What are some of the concerns?

  • High Cost & High Risk: One thing that isn’t small about SMRs is the price tag; cost estimates exceed that for larger-sized new reactors, which have themselves skyrocketed in costs. Funding SMRs is a waste of limited financial resources that could, for example, be better spent to develop greater energy efficiency and affordable, safe renewable energy sources that are available now. In fact, according to TVA, pursuing the SMR option was the most expensive option of those explored in their 2011 Bellefonte white paper (see page 13 for chart) and the economics have not improved since then. NuScale’s own estimates also have SMRs at much higher costs than other generation options including solar and wind. There are no approved SMR designs adding further risk to an already extremely speculative technology. After getting more subsidies than any other energy sector in the United States, it would seem nuclear power should be a thriving industry, but it is not. Read about the FY2017 budget for SMRs here.
  • Security: Several countries have expressed interest in pursuing SMRs. A particular country’s political stability, possible corruption and security forces that may not be properly trained to protect the technology and materials, which can be used to create nuclear bombs, are all concerns as SMRs are considered. “If sabotaged, even a 20-megawatt reactor could release a substantial amount of radiation … Do we really want a nuclear reactor on every island in the Indonesian archipelago?” said Dr. Edwin Lyman with the Union of Concerned Scientists. If the U.S hailed SMRs as the future of nuclear energy, it would be impractical if not impossible to simultaneously deny the technology to the rest of the world.
  • Radioactive Waste: SMRs still produce extremely toxic, highly radioactive and long-lived nuclear waste for which no safe, long term management exists. In fact, SMRs could greatly complicate the disposal of nuclear waste. The use of SMRs would inevitably increase the number of designated locations for radioactive nuclear waste in the world, making it harder to control, track and manage. Additionally, given that many of these “mini-nukes” are proposed to be built underground, the management and storage of radioactive waste could become much more complex, especially in the event of even a minor accident.
  • Safety: Supposedly in part because of their smaller individual size, vendors of these reactors are proposing smaller emergency planning zones (EPZ) than the traditional 10-mile zone, as small as the site boundary or up to 2 miles, which would be insufficient to protect the public in the event of a radiation release. Reducing these important safety protections is really a means to reduce the cost of these expensive reactors. Some other safety concerns include potential flooding hazards, limited inspection access given the below-ground design and potential fire and explosion hazards, exacerbated by the below-ground configuration.
  • Not Needed: In terms of TVA, the most recent long-term energy plan, the 2015 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), didn’t show a need for new generation beyond the Watts Bar 2 unit (which is now complete) and an uprate to the existing Browns Ferry reactors. TVA itself has said that SMRs are not needed and that TVA is very hesitant to pursue new nuclear generation after the difficulties with Watts Bar 2. And given TVA’s strained budget, wasting more money on unnecessary projects like SMRs is not something customers should shoulder. According to a March 2017 GAO report on TVA’s debt:
    • the total estimated costs for TVA to develop, submit and support the NRC application and review for SMRs is about $72 million, according to an interagency agreement with DOE – TVA is responsible for half these costs;
    • TVA spent around $23 million on SMR activities through FY 2015 and estimates spending about $5 million in FY 2016; and
    • TVA said they will not decide whether or not to construct SMRs for at least 5 years.

With the nuclear industry and its proponents touting small modular reactors as the “solution to coal plant retirements,” it seems they are reluctant to admit that the so-called “nuclear renaissance” died before ever really taking off.

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