A new type of experimental reactor technology has the potential to revive the nuclear industry, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Review reported Tuesday.
James Temple, senior energy editor of the MIT Technology Review, thinks that advanced small modular reactors (SMRs) are the first major breakthrough in the nuclear industry that could allow it to make a comeback. Advanced modular nuclear reactors could restart the atomic age by providing cheap, meltdown-proof and waste-free nuclear power. Mass-produced SMRs could significantly reduce the up-front costs and risks of building a reactor.
“We’ve done a lot of work with SMRs,” Dr. Jeff Terry, a professor of nuclear physics involved in SMR research at the Illinois Institute of Technology, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “It’s not that they’re so much better, but they have a greatly reduced up-front cost because you don’t have to pay for the whole thing at once.”
SMRs could be a game changer for nuclear power, as they can be manufactured completely in a factory.
“The factory environment gives you an enormous advantage over building a reactor in the field,” Terry said. “Building the modules that way and shipping is really the absolute way to go forward.”
These reactors would be cost competitive with natural gas and more capable of powering remote areas. They’d also be far less risky for investors.
“When you look at the market capitalization of most electricity generators, given how much a conventional nuclear plant costs, building one is effectively betting the company,” Terry said. “Let’s say a conventional reactor costs $10 billion. That’s a bet the company made on a nuclear plant. An SMR is more palatable because it is a lot less up front money and if something goes wrong financially your company isn’t going under.”
SMRs are inherently safer than conventional reactors, according to Terry, because they rely on passive physics, as opposed to a system that must be actively managed to stay cool.
“SMRs are much better at protecting property in my opinion,” Terry said. “Whereas Fukushima spread radiation over the ocean, these smaller reactors rely on physics principles to cool the reactor. That being said, the current versions of reactors don’t exactly kill people.”
SMRs could be built and deployed much more rapidly than conventional nuclear power plants, which makes them perfect for addressing global warming.
“If we can deploy these, we can rapidly cut carbon dioxide [CO2] emissions,” Terry said. “Nuclear and hydro power are really the only two proven methods for reducing global carbon emissions. If you want to do anything with climate change, nuclear is certainly going to play a major roll.”
SMRs could be about to get their big shot. After years of delays, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) finally agreed to review the first-ever application for an SMR.
“Currently all the operating reactors in the U.S. are conventional light-water reactors,” Terry said. “They use regular water as a moderator and a coolant. The advanced designs use liquid metals, liquid salt and helium as coolants. The advantage of that is that water boils at very low temperatures so you need to build a bigger reactor to make it efficient. There are many SMR designs that use other coolants and that means they could be very small.”
NRC began a formal review of a proposed SMR advanced nuclear reactor in January after NuScale Power, the company behind the project, filed a 12,000-page application for it. NuScale’s first SMR is expected to begin operations in 2026.
“The NRC still has to fully approve it [NuScale’s reactor],” Terry said. “It still has to be sited and there’s still a lot that could go wrong before they start construction. Hopefully it all goes according to plan.”
Just asking the government for approval to file the plans cost NuScale $500 million and 2 million labor hours over eight years. NuScale wants to build the first U.S. SMR in Idaho, but producing the 12,000-page document will cost the company tens of millions of dollars, including paying NRC officials $258 per hour to review it.
Research by the American Action Forum found that government regulations cost the nuclear industry $15.7 billion, or about $219 million per power plant. Most of this cost was in complying with government regulations about the safe disposal of nuclear waste, but government mandated paperwork alone accounted for $63.3 million annually.
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