The problems with small nuclear reactors

Even in a budget-slashing environment, the U.S. Department of Energy has already requested $67 million in FY2012 to pay for part of the design certification and licensing for up to two designs. Sixteen bipartisan House members have sent a letter in support of this subsidy. Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chair of the Senate Energy Committee, has introduced a bill to require the development of two SMR designs, as have Reps. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) and Tim Murphy (R-Pa.).

The arguments of the proponents are alluring:  since they are small, SMRs could be cheaply mass produced in factories and quickly erected on site.  Being small, no single reactor would be a "bet the farm" risk. Most seductively, there would be highly paid industrial jobs right here in the United States; SMRs would just roll off the assembly lines like the Model Ts of yesteryear in contrast to the custom made Lamborghinis of today.

The devil, as usual, is in the details. For instance, the cost of a nuclear reactor per unit of electrical generating capacity declines with increasing size. This is because, contrary to intuition, larger reactors use less material per unit of capacity than smaller reactors. When the size of given type of reactor is reduced from 1,000 to 100 megawatts, the amount of material used per megawatt will more than double.

And the notion that U.S. workers would get the bulk of the factory jobs is entirely fanciful, given the rules of the World Trade Organization on free trade. Most likely the reactors would be made in China or another country with industrial infrastructure and far lower wages.

And what would we do if the severe quality problems with Chinese products, such as drywall and infant formula, afflict reactors? Will there be a process for recalls, as has happened with factory products from Toyotas to Tylenol? How do you recall a radioactively-contaminated, mass-produced nuclear reactor if it has problems?

There are economies of scale associated with security, too. Today, large crews staff a reactor control room round-the-clock and guard the site. To reduce operating costs, some vendors are advocating to lower the number of security staff and to require only one operator for three modules, raising serious questions about whether there would be sufficient personnel in the event of an accident or attack.

The same problem is associated with safety. The cost of electricity from SMRs would skyrocket if each reactor had to have its own secondary containment structure. Such containment is needed to prevent large-scale releases of radioactivity in case of a severe accident. To ameliorate this problem, it has been proposed to put a number of SMRs in a single containment structure.

The result is that a typical reactor project would still have to be very large with several reactors per project; a single small reactor at a site would become prohibitively expensive if security and safety standards are to be maintained. This would defeat the purpose of the flexible "modular" design.

All these problems would be associated with SMRs even if we stuck with the basic design approach - light water reactors - that is well-known.  They would be compounded with new rector designs and new types of waste.

Nuclear power advocates have long promised far more than they can deliver, ignoring essential hurdles such as cost, safety, and performance. Decades of experience, however, have proven those promises to be hollow and hazardous. The notion that "small is beautiful" for nuclear reactors is not just fanciful; it is whistling past the graveyard of the "nuclear renaissance" that never was.

Dr. Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.