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Packing a Punch
Meet the Powerful, Pint-Sized Nuclear Power Plant

With apologies to Texas, bigger isn’t always better. When it comes to nuclear power, shrinking reactors down to a size where they could fit on the back of a truck could help solve a number of the energy source’s biggest (no pun intended) problems. The FT reports on these small modular reactors, or SMRs:

SMRs are designed as shrunken versions of larger plants; they can be made in factories and moved by train, truck or barge to the site. Developers say that if enough are built in the same factory, costs per unit of energy output can be driven down well below those of larger plants.

Small reactors are already used on nuclear submarines and in some developing countries such as India and Pakistan. But only recently have the industry and politicians begun to take seriously the idea that they could be made economically on a large scale.

Anurag Gupta, nuclear director at KPMG UK, says: “SMRs promise all the benefits of nuclear — low cost and green power — but without the significant cost and schedule overrun issues that have beset conventional large nuclear projects.”

One of the biggest obstacles for new nuclear power plant projects is the sheer scope of them: any given project requires huge sums of money, years if not decades of planning, large acreage on which to site the plant, extensive and expensive cooling apparatuses—the list goes on.

Scaling these projects down won’t eliminate these problems—reactors won’t magically become cheap (though economies of scale could bring costs down), NIMBY-ism will continue to obstruct projects (and may even make siting more difficult as more SMRs come online), and due diligence will still be required to minimize risks posed by mishaps and malfeasance alike. But at a smaller scale, these issues are more manageable. And that’s not just good news for countries looking for a consistent source of baseload power to bolster their national energy mix, it’s also good news for the planet.

That’s because nuclear power plants are our green energy workhorse. They provide power round-the-clock without emitting greenhouse gases or harmful local pollutants—a pair of benefits no fossil fuel-fired power plant, solar array, or wind farm can provide. SMRs are just one of many exciting new nuclear technologies coming down the pipe, and while it’s too early to anoint any one specific one as a game-changer, this new generation ought to be putting a smile on the face of anyone who purports to care about climate change or the environment. Nuclear power needs to be the cornerstone of a sustainable, clean energy mix, and SMRs could help that happen.

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  • LarryD

    One other advantage in building a lot of small reactors instead of a large reactor. Time. Small reactors can be built faster because they are are a form of mass production, building the same design over and over. Large reactors are basically one-off projects. Which means that small reactors can be deployed incrementally, getting the site up and producing power and revenue faster. This drops the financial risk considerably.

    • Andrew Allison

      Nothing matters but the cost. As the post posits, spitting out SMRs by the score will make the overall cost-benefit irresistible to all but the most blind enviro-luddites.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Ah but those are the ones most dedicated to stopping them at all costs, thus the fight will get nastier…

  • Blackbeard

    There are lots of interesting new technologies developing in the nuclear power field such as the SMR mentioned in the article but also including thorium cycle, molten salt, and standardized partially factory-built reactors to simplify permitting. China, and other modern industrialized countries, are pursuing these technologies but they won’t happen here. In the U.S. energy policy, as well as science policy in general, is controlled by the Greens who are determined to roll technology back to windmills.

    • JR

      Nothing stands in the way of progress so long. Greens will fight it, but innovations in energy will keep coming despite their stupidity.

      • Blackbeard

        Well, Obama promised to bankrupt the coal industry and he did it. The nuclear industry, such as it is in the U.S., is slowly but steadily shutting down. Both Hillary and Bernie promised to outlaw fracking if elected. The Obama administration stated, early on, that no new dams would be built in the U.S. ever and indeed 2,000 some odd dams have been removed during the Obama years. Admittedly these dams are mostly small but they’re working on the big ones such as Glen Canyon and Hetch Hetchy. My point is that these people, mad as it seems, really intend to run a modern industrial economy with windmills.

  • FriendlyGoat

    It’s true that the future of nuclear power is in the mini units. Safer, cheaper, mobile and subject to less opposition by the NIMBYs.

  • CaliforniaStark

    This sounds like fascinating technology, but there is an underlying issue of cost. One potential manufacturer of SMRs estimates a kilowatt of electricity will cost about five times the cost of a kilowatt from a combined-cycle natural gas plant. Mass production may reduce the price, but that would be limited by the cost of the materials used, and special engineering required. Add regulatory costs imposed by government agencies frightened by anything involving nuclear power, and have to question if, as with offshore wind turbines in Denmark and Germany, we may be looking at a technology that may never become cost competitive. Instead, it could become yet another mouth to feed at the government subsidy table.

    • Andrew Allison

      It’s a question of volume. The Boston Consulting Group’s discovery that the cost of a product (originally, WW-II aircraft) declines by a fixed percentage each time the production volume doubles applies here. To greatly simplify, the cost of materials would decline, the “special engineering” would only need tweaks based on experience, and the regulatory cost would be for the product, not per unit.

  • MarkM

    Forget mobile – can we get them to the point where we can bury them 10-20 feet down into the earth, cement them in place and just let them continue to run until their fuel runs down? This will require zero to minimal maintenance (any necessary maintenance to be done by built-in mechanisms/robots), the ability to withstand various levels of ground shocks (earthquakes), and closed/sealed systems so radioactive isotopes don’t end up in groundwater aquifers. Of course, the other beauty is when the fuel runs out, you can just let them sit underground and don’t end up with a lot of radioactive waste which has to be transported elsewhere before being buried …

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