Why are SMR (Small Modular Reactors) so important?

Just a quick note on the captioned topic. I am completely confident that SMR's are the future, though the range of power production will not always be limited to “small”, and the nuclear design will certainly not be limited to today's PWR (pressurized-water-reactor) technology. I wrote this note today in reply to the following comment:

It would not solve the waste problem which the IFR and LFTR probably would solve.

There isn't a “waste problem” because there is no technical issue with unburnt fuel, there is a political problem. If uranium wasn't so cheap the economics would have driven greater reprocessing.

It's important not to confuse the IFR or LFTR contributions with the concept of “mass manufacturing”. Remove the “S” and you have “MR” or Manufactured Reactor which is what is significant.

It isn't SMR-PWR vs. IFR/LFTR, it is volume manufacturing and the safety, quality and cost control that goes with the process-control that is important. When affordable, reliable power becomes a hot political issue – then I think that both fast reactors and thorium reactors will have their opportunities to compete. And both will be manufactured in quantity, where safety will be inherent in both the engineering and the process, not in ridiculously costly inspections.

So when you think of SMR don't think narrowly of current technology – which is constrained by what can be shoved through sclerotic regulators like NRC. Think instead a range of sizes of fast, high-temperature or thermal reactors.

It's also important to keep in mind that what the OECD countries do does not really matter that much w/r/t global warming. It is what the fast-developing countries like China, Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan, or Uganda do. Those countries need cheap, reliable electricity that they can deploy without first creating a safety/technical culture and the associated infrastructure. One or two gigawatt mega-reactors are not appropriate and will not be adopted in those markets. At the right price 25 to 250 MW reactors that can be buried and refueled in 10 or 30 years – these just might be adopted by countries that don't give a damn about global warming. Let us hope…

We can also hope for a new politics where Bill Gates would have been able to build Terrapower in the USA instead of being forced to go to China. Frankly I think that will not happen – England's reforms would not have happened without the New World to generate the innovation. We don't know where the new models for US/EU will come from or what they will be like. But they might originate in Chile, Shanghai or Estonia.

 

7 thoughts on “Why are SMR (Small Modular Reactors) so important?

  1. Mr. Darden,
    your piece is informative and germane, however, I find unnecessary and a bit distasteful to refer to Pres. Carter as an idiot, he made some mistakes, he also accomplished a great many things. Such as the near eradication of lymphatic filariasis. Your article is cheapened by the slur.

  2. I think that fleet production rather than unit production is the solution. China does not plan for a single nuclear plant. China plans for a fleet of nuclear plants. The Chinese nuclear fleet planning is working. It works with generation II plants as it did in France. It works with generation III+ plants like the AP1000 and the EPR too. Most of an AP1000 is manufactured in factories around the world. Our problem is not manufacturing as opposed to stick construction. Our problem is not small vs large plants. Our problem is consistent financing.

    I would like to all coal power generation replaced by nuclear power generation in the United States. But how could the United States organize itself to build at a sustainable rate that is not too fast (a bubble) and not too slow (no benefit of learning curve and supply chain)?

    If the nuclear spending rate of 10 billion a year were established and maintained for 20 years, then I believe the cost per plant would go down and the reduction in CO2 produced would be significant. Other than the government building plants, is there any other financial control mechanism that can achieve success?

    • Our problem is consistent financing.

      That’s a useful framing – financing is a necessary condition for every plant start – regardless of technology or fabrication process. And fleet fabrication is clearly the efficient approach for the gigawatt-class plants. 

      Most of an AP1000 is manufactured in factories around the world.

      The “manufacturing” of an AP1000 is more analogous to building the next space shuttle than the next Lexus. I know that SMR fabrication won’t look like today’s Lexus line. But I don’t see why it won’t resemble the new Tesla line (powered by flexible, general purpose robots). Of course the absolute numbers are much smaller.

      Other than the government building plants, is there any other financial control mechanism that can achieve success?

      I don’t have any easy answers to your question. My take is the biggest financing problem comes down to risk assessment. The activists have been enormously successful in casting one extremely safe industrial process as “unsafe at any speed”. How do we turn around this perception of risk (relative risk/reward is something that humans are especially bad at understanding). I don’t see how this can be done unless the political elites (e.g., Obama) dedicated political capital to education – what are the real-world economics and risk vs. benefits of generation and transport alternatives?

      Lastly, I’m not at all concerned that US nuclear deployment could reach bubble status. The world needs to build twice as much generation by 2060 as we currently have installed (more to support synfuel production to replace oil). We can’t build new nuclear capacity fast enough under the most optimistic assumptions.

      I don’t see the US “building” a lot of that new capacity. The manufacturing lines need to be in China, India, et al. The obvious responsibility of US, Germany, UK etc. is to help the developing world build safe production and operations capability to scale – fast.

      • Our problem is consistent financing.

        That’s a useful framing – financing is a necessary condition for every plant start – regardless of technology or fabrication process. And fleet fabrication is clearly the efficient approach for the gigawatt-class plants. 

        Most of an AP1000 is manufactured in factories around the world.

        The “manufacturing” of an AP1000 is more analogous to building the next space shuttle than the next Lexus. I know that SMR fabrication won’t look like today’s Lexus line. But I don’t see why it won’t resemble the new Tesla line (powered by flexible, general purpose robots). Of course the absolute numbers are much smaller.

        Other than the government building plants, is there any other financial control mechanism that can achieve success?

        I don’t have any easy answers to your question. My take is the biggest financing problem comes down to risk assessment. The activists have been enormously successful in casting one extremely safe industrial process as “unsafe at any speed”. How do we turn around this perception of risk (relative risk/reward is something that humans are especially bad at understanding). I don’t see how this can be done unless the political elites (e.g., Obama) dedicate serious attention and political capital to education – “what are the real-world economics and risk vs. benefits of generation and transport alternatives?”

        Lastly, I’m not at all concerned that US nuclear deployment could reach bubble status. The world needs to build twice as much generation by 2060 as we currently have installed (more to support synfuel production to replace oil). We can’t build new nuclear capacity fast enough under the most optimistic assumptions.

        I don’t see the US “building” a lot of that new capacity. The manufacturing lines need to be in China, India, et al. The obvious responsibility of US, Germany, UK etc. is to help the developing world build safe production and operations capability to scale – fast.

  3. As I see it, there IS a waste problem with PWRs using uranium unless there are other reactor types that can use PWR waste as fuel.

    Reprocessing PWR waste would significantly reduce the amount of waste, but not enough. On the other hand, the LFTR with continuous waste reprocessing generates less than 1% as much waste as the PWR and can use PWR waste as fuel. The IFR, which has on-site waste reprocessing, also produces less than 1% as much waste as the PWR.

    As a temporary measure, probably we should continue building PWRs until better reactors can be implemented.

    • As I see it, there IS a waste problem with PWRs using uranium unless there are other reactor types that can use PWR waste as fuel.

      Well, there already are reactor designs that burn PWR waste. The IFR is the closest to commercial scale – and GE would appear to agree.

      We need to keep clearly in mind that there is not yet any perfect energy source. So we have to always frame these discussions as “compared to what?” or “what is your alternative?”. The main consequences of the anti-nuclear campaign have been to build more coal plants while driving up the cost of nuclear energy.

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