Small Modular Nuclear Reactors By 2022 — But No Market For Them

The Department of Energy will spend $452 million—with a match from industry—over the next five years to guide two small modular reactor designs through the nuclear regulatory process by 2022. But cheap natural gas could freeze even small nuclear plants out of the energy market well beyond that date.
DOE accepted bids through Monday for companies to participate in the Small Modular Reactor program. A number of reactor manufacturers submitted bids, including NuScale Power and a collaboration that includes Westinghouse and General Dynamic.
"This would allow SMR technology to overcome the hurdle of NRC certification – the 'gold standard' of the international nuclear industry, and would help in the proper development of the NRC’s regulatory framework to deal with SMRs," according to Paul Genoa, Senior Director of Policy Development at the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Genoa's comments are recorded in a summary released today of a briefing given to Senate staff earlier this month on prospects for small modular reactors, which have been championed by the Obama Administration.
DOE defines reactors as SMRs if they generate less than 300 megawatts of power, sometimes as little as 25 MW, compared to conventional reactors which may produce more than 1,000 MW. Small modular reactors can be constructed in factories and installed underground, which improves containment and security but may hinder emergency access.
The same summary records doubt that SMRs can compete in a market increasingly dominated by cheap natural gas. Nuclear Consultant Philip Moor told Senate staff that SMRs can compete if natural gas costs $7 to $8 per million BTU—gas currently costs only $2 per MBTU—or if carbon taxes are implemented, a scenario political experts deem unlikely.
"Like Mr. Moor, Mr. Genoa also sees the economic feasibility of SMRs as the final challenge. With inexpensive natural gas prices and no carbon tax, the economics don’t work in the favor of SMRs," according to the summary.
The SMRs most likely to succeed are designs that use the same fuels and water cooling systems as the large reactors in operation in the U.S. today, according to Gail Marcus, an independent consultant in nuclear technology and policy and a former deputy director of the Department of Energy Office of Nuclear Energy, simply because the NRC is accustomed to regulating those reactors.
"Those SMR designs that use light water cooling have a major advantage in licensing and development [and] those new designs based on existing larger reactor designs, like Westinghouse’s scaled‐down 200 MW version of the AP‐1000 reactor, would have particular advantage."
This is bad news for some innovative reactor designs such as thorium reactors that rely on different, some say safer, fuels and cooling systems.
Senate staff also heard criticism of the Administration's hopes for SMRs from Edwin Lyman, Senior Scientist in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists:
The last panelist, Dr. Lyman, provided a more skeptical viewpoint on SMRs, characterizing public discussion on the topic as “irrational exuberance.” Lyman argued that, with a few exceptions, safety characteristics were not significantly better than full‐size reactors, and in general, safety tended to rely on the same sorts of features. Some safety benefits, he stated, also declined as reactor power approached the upper bound of the SMR category….
Lyman argued that the Fukushima disaster should lead to a “reset” in licensing. In his opinion, the incident exposed numerous weaknesses in how nuclear power is regulated, and in order to remedy these oversights, regulation should be revisited.

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