05 June 2024

I Could Tell You That

Roll Tape!
The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) has issued a report finding that  small modular reactors (SMR) cannot deliver on their promise of faster and cheaper nuclear energy.

This is not a surprise for me, I worked briefly in the nuclear industry, and I know that the technology cannot be made cheap or fast.

What did surprise me is that the existing record is as bad as it is:

Miniature nuclear reactors promise a future filled with local, clean, safe zero-carbon energy, but those promises quickly melt when confronted with reality, say a pair of researchers.

Known as small modular reactors, or SMRs, miniaturized atomic power plants have been touted as a way to ensure the world meets climate change mitigation goals as fossil fuels are phased out in favor of renewables and nuclear sources.

With a few SMR projects built and operational at this point, and more plants under development, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) concludes in a report that SMRs are "still too expensive, too slow to build, and too risky to play a significant role in transitioning away from fossil fuels."

IEEFA doesn't have many data points to pull from, with only three SMRs actually online around the world – one in China and two in Russia. A fourth, in Argentina, is still under construction and perfectly illustrates the point IEEFA researchers try to make: It's running far over cost and is facing budget constraints that could affect its future.

The other three SMRs have run into similar issues. They've all been way more expensive than initially agreed upon, and proposals for SMRs in the US face related issues, the report finds.

Per-kilowatt hour costs for SMRs proposed in the US by NuScale, the first company to receive US regulatory approval for SMRs, have more than doubled since 2015. Costs projected by X-Energy and GE-Hitachi for their SMRs have similarly risen since initial proposals.


Along with those costs, IEEFA research points out that none of the SMRs built so far have come anywhere close to meeting proposed construction timelines. The two Russian units were supposed to be built in three years, but both took 13. The Shidao Bay SMR in China was estimated as a four-year project but took 12, while the ongoing CAREM 25 in Argentina was also proposed as a four-year development but has so far taken 13.

So, SMRs to date have not been any faster or any cheaper than the current large nuclear plants, which is to say that they will be a useless waste of resources because they will be too late.

The SMR movement is largely driven by the idea that if you unleash the free market on nuclear power, the results will be magical, or so the free market mousketeers argue. 

It turns out that the promise of SMRs are not magical, they are mythical.


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