Saturday, September 26, 2020

Small Modular Reactors: Stupid 20 years ago when they were first considered, even stupider now.

Small Modular Reactors:

Stupid 20 years ago when they were first considered, even stupider now.

by Ace Hoffman

September 26, 2020

Probably the first time I heard the phrase "Small Modular Reactors" (SMRs) was more than 20 years ago. Why then? Why now? The reasoning hasn't changed, and it has nothing to do with efficiency: No SMR can compete with a full-scale nuclear reactor on efficiency (i.e., profitability, assuming numerous costs are subsidized by the public in one form or another).

The dream is that SMRs might be able to compete with large reactors on the initial cost of installation, and maybe, if they are automated enough, on operating costs.

But the reality is that SMRs can never compete in a fair (unsubsidized or minimally subsidized) market with the current price of renewable energy, particularly wind power, or solar power, hydro power, wave power, etc.. And those prices are continuing to drop by huge amounts. Projected SMR prices are sure to be ridiculous underestimates.

The most important subsidy every SMR designer assumes they will get is regarding spent fuel management for the next 250,000 years: That's ALWAYS -- absolutely every time -- assumed to be the government's problem (i.e., the taxpayer and ultimately the public).

A look at the data for the most "promising" SMR (called NuScale (1)), which received Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approval (Final Safety Evaluation Report, FSER) less than a month ago, shows absolutely no plan for what to do with the waste it will produce -- except to "gift" it to the government -- i.e, foist it on the public forever.  At no cost to the SMR owners.

A recent estimate of the cost of electricity from NuScale's SMRs -- seen at a presentation at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas (2) and reportedly approved by NuScale themselves -- was that electricity from their SMRs would cost $3,600/Kw (ignoring, among other things, financing costs). Their estimate is based on a full-scale production schedule of several hundred SMRs over a 20 year period, costing $360 billion dollars, and proposed to be paid for entirely guessed it: The government.

That is more than double the current cost of onshore wind power, solar, etc. and would have zero carbon benefit over renewables (it is supposed to be enough nuclear power to completely replace coal use in America). Meanwhile, the price of renewable energy has continued to plummet while no nuclear cost estimate has ever turned out to be accurate -- they are always seriously underestimated by factors from 5 to 10 or more.

Another aspect SMR proponents ignore is that battery storage has become viable, eliminating the "need" for any "baseline" energy sources."Lithium batteries have become ~10x cheaper, ~5x longer lasting, ~3x more powerful and ~2x lighter in the last 10 years alone" (3).

Nuclear proponents always state that nuclear power is "carbon-free" (it isn't!) and would therefore deserve carbon subsidies. They further contend these carbon subsidies would be equal to, or even slightly greater than, the cost of the SMRs. However, renewables would also deserve the same subsidies and would not generate ANY nuclear waste, the cost of storing and handling said waste being completely ignored in every SMR cost estimate. Just give it to the government.  The potential cost of catastrophic accidents is also ignored.

Regarding the spent fuel nuclear waste, NuScale claims that if all the spent fuel in America were piled together, it would fit on a football field stacked 30 feet high. That equals 1,440,000 cubic feet, and of course, stacking it that close together would result in a criticality event, probably destroying ALL LIFE ON EARTH.

Compare that to the volume of all the gold in the world, which would occupy a cube approximately 67.5 feet on a side (4): 307,547 cubic feet, or about one fifth the current volume of America's nuclear waste. And harmless.

We also need to talk about terrorism, accidents, and proliferation. SMR cost calculations invariably ignore ALL these things! Running a nuclear reactor produces plutonium, which must be carefully guarded to prevent rogue nations from acquiring nuclear weapons. Granted, stealing the nuclear fuel from any nuclear reactor is no easy trick, but if nuclear waste is reprocessed, the plutonium and fissile uranium (U-235) are extracted from the highly toxic fission products and non-fissile isotopes, and that means there is the possibility that some portion will be removed for bomb-making purposes. Very tight international controls are the only thing that would prevent it. Costly, prone to errors in judgement, bribery, and subterfuge.

To be financially viable, SMRs, like all reactors, need to balance four things: Costs, Safety, Waste, and Proliferation (5). To keep the price low, one or more of the other three needs to be compromised. There is no getting around that.

SMRs are expected to be located within a small city, which means if there is an accidental meltdown -- perhaps caused by an earthquake or terrorist attack -- there will be widespread devastation.  SMRs are expected to operate WITHOUT the 5 or 10-mile Emergency Planning Zones (EPZs) that large reactors have been required to have. Their EPZ stops at their fence.

And how small are they, really? One estimate from NuScale claims they will be about as large as a "gymnasium", but NuScale also proposes that they will be clustered together in groups of as many as a dozen SMRs, thus taking up about as much land space as a traditional large reactor but altogether producing about 3/4ths of the power, if that.  Some proposals are that they be built underground, but that significantly increases the cost (Note: Famous pro-nuker and hydrogen bomb designer Edward Teller proposed that commercial reactors be built underground for the protection of the public in case of an accident; this was not done because of the cost.)

In conclusion, SMRs have absolutely NOTHING to offer. NuScale had to secure half a billion dollars in sucker-funded private investment just to get their FSER, and if any SMRs are ever built, their cost will have to be highly subsidized at least until full-scale production begins, and even then, the cost of waste storage, waste transport, and accidents will not be considered by the investors.

One technical report on SMRs also pointed out that no nuclear design has ever been "finalized," even two reactors built concurrently on the same site are invariably very different from each other. The chance that the second "standardized" SMR will be identical to the first is essentially zero. The third will be different from the first two, and so on (6).

SMRs are the stupidest idea to come out of the nuclear industry since the original idea that nuclear power had any commercial value at all. The nuclear industry is the most highly subsidized industry in history, and has already had the most costly failures of any industry in history. SMRs promise to be no different.

Ace Hoffman

Carlsbad, California


(1) nuscale dot com (2020)

(2) An Evening with Dr. Victor H. Reis: “A Strategy for U.S. Nuclear Power: Mitigating Climate Change” (Sept. 24, 2020, online webinar)

(3) Auke Hoekstra, Researcher @TUeindhoven @AukeHoekstra (from Tesla Battery Day), 2020 Note that these are *not* multiplicative values.


(5) One size doesn’t fit all: Social priorities and technical conflicts for small modular reactors by M.V. Ramana∗, Zia Mian, April, 2014, Nuclear Futures Laboratory and Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, United States, Elsevier

(6) Ibid.

Additional resources include: (search "Small Modular Reactors")

Small modular reactors for nuclear power: hope or mirage? February 21, 2018 by M.V. Ramana


For a far more in-depth look at various designs for SMRs, please check out this article by Dr. Helen Caldicott:,14342


1 comment:

  1. What a Great idea, why didn't we think of these nifty little Reactors! Geeze, have they gone mad?
    Great retort Ace!


Comments should be in good taste and include the commentator's full name and affiliation.