During Iowa’s public discussion of nuclear power over the last three years, proponents have frequently mentioned Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) as the solution to some of the problems with nuclear power. That current nuclear technology is flawed, resulting in massive failures as in Chernobyl and Fukushima, is not news. A number of attempts have been made to design a better nuclear reactor, with SMRs offering a paradigm about how to eliminate some of the safety and efficiency problems of a conventional nuclear reactor, like the one installed at NextEra Energy’s Duane Arnold Energy Center in Palo. While the paradigm of SMRs fits into the hyperbole of the recent discussion, the reality is that no SMR design has been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Nor is approval imminent, with talk of the earliest likely approval of SMR design being ten years from now.
A fundamental problem with development of nuclear technology is there has been little commercial interest in new nuclear power over the last three decades. It is an expensive way to boil water and the financial risks to investors and electric utilities have restricted consideration of it. In South Africa, hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in a SMR design called “pebble-bed” and research and development were scaled back dramatically in 2010 for want of a viable path to construction of a prototype (click here to read article). Unless government pays the research and development expense, or steps in to alter market conditions so as to make SMRs more attractive to investors, SMR technology seems unlikely to advance near term. Altering market conditions is what the Iowa legislature has been considering with HF 561.
While it seems ridiculous to talk about SMRs, because their expense is prohibitive, let’s suspend disbelief about costs and look at SMRs. A recent issue of Popular Mechanics presented three types and the article is worth reading.
One of the designs being developed uses a scaled down version of the conventional light water reactor mentioned by Bill Fehrman, the MidAmerican Energy CEO, when he spoke at an Iowa Senate Commerce Committee meeting in 2011. In the event of an emergency, gravity and thermodynamics are used to cool the reactor core with water in lieu of an external pump powered by a diesel generator. Check out the Popular Science article for a brief overview of the light water reactor, as well as two other types, gas-cooled SMRs, which would use helium gas to cool the reactor core; and fast reactors, which make more efficient use of uranium.
While these developments in SMR technology address known issues with nuclear reactor design, it is telling that no SMR design has been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. There is a discussion among nuclear industry experts about installing a single SMR unit at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which is a federally owned corporation created by congressional charter in 1933 to provide navigation, flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing and economic development in the Tennessee River valley. The purpose of a TVA SMR would be to further the NRC design approval process and develop field data about SMR design efficacy. Without government subsidy of this kind, the SMRs seem unlikely to move forward in the United States in the near future.
When proponents of SMR technology talk about it in public, what they say doesn’t make sense. On the one hand they talk about the efficiency and flexibility of modular reactor technology. On the other hand, they talk about the need for centrally located “baseload” power where economies of scale are important to keeping the cost per kilowatt hour low. What this means to consumers is that while a single town or large-scale user may be able to have their own nuclear reactor on-site, if this were done, the cost of the ancillary charges would be much higher per kilowatt hour because efficiencies of scale would be lost. Installing SMRs only makes sense, from a cost standpoint, if they are constructed in clusters as the Nu-Scale and Babcock and Wilcox designs are intended.
Why should the Iowa legislature tinker with the markets around nuclear power in 2012? They shouldn’t. The cost of building a conventional light water reactor is very high, and the proposed technology to address high costs (i.e. small modular reactors) is not far enough along in the development process, maybe ten or more years out, to understand much of anything with regards to design efficacy or costs. The Iowa legislature should stay out of the business of manipulating the nuclear power market until designs have been approved and implemented in other states, and we better understand the cost structures.
Iowa knows too much about the high cost and safety concerns of nuclear power to create incentives for investors as HF 561 would do.
~ Paul Deaton lives in rural Iowa is a regular contributor to Blog for Iowa.