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Small Modular Reactors Face Numerous Economic Challenges, Development More Difficult than Imagined

published: 2023-04-20 9:30

Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), which have garnered much attention in recent years, have once again received mention in the “2022 World Nuclear Industry Status Report”. The report points out that the challenges and cost of SMRs are far greater than what the outside world imagines.

Tsai Chung-yue, deputy executive officer of Citizen of the Earth, said the report, which has been tracking the development of SMRs since 2016, reported no significant progress made over the past few years. There is evidence however, to suggest that the reactors are facing significant economic challenges.

The report assessed the developmental status and prospects of SMRs in various countries: SMRs are not an emerging technology but have continued to face long delays and high costs. In countries such as Argentina and China, SMRs have yet to product a single watt of electricity. And in other countries, much of the fanfare surrounding SMRs has been all sizzle and no steak. For instance, Canada continues to struggle with obtaining the necessary funding and has yet to even submit a design for safety review, let alone certification.

France claims it is committed to R&D, but only 10 to 15 engineers are currently involved in the early stages of development. French power company, EDF, has stated that the project is not a priority. India has been discussing SMR development since the 1990s but construction continues to be delayed. In early 2022, India announced that the safety assessment of its SMR design has been completed. Meanwhile, South Korea claims that its design was approved by safety authorities in 2012, but it has not been able to attract any customer orders. Other designs are still in the early stages of development according to the report.

The report mentioned that although Russia has two floating SMRs, their load factors for 2021 were only 44.7 and 18%—poor operation makes them difficult for commercial use. The UK has also garnered attention surrounding the issue of SMRs. The UK’s design company, Rolls-Royce, has designed a 470 MW reactor, which exceeds the size limit of 300 MW for small-sized reactors. The company has been begun to collect funding but have yet to reach their target.

The U.S. is another country where many companies have tried to invest in the SMR industry and failed. The U.S. Department of Energy has reportedly already invested more than US$1.2 billion on SMR, and has announced further funding of an additional US$5.5 billion over the next decade. However, none of the companies have even started construction yet. When Westinghouse announced that its venture into SMR had ultimately failed, the CEO explained, “The problem with SMR lies not in its technology nor construction, but in its lack of customers.” Yet, judging from the current situation, it appears that technology and construction have also become major issues. NuScale Power’s SMR design, which has obtained its final safety assessment report, has progressed the farthest out of any company in the U.S. Unfortunately, estimated costs (including financing) has risen to US$5.3 billion, which in turn has made it difficult to produce power at a reasonable cost.

Power generated by SMRs currently costs higher than that of renewable energy. NextEra Energy estimates that SMR costs US$105–130/MWh; comparatively, wind power costs US$25–32/MWh and solar power costs US$32–37/MWh. The cost per unit of power generated may become even higher if SMR is used to balance the intermittency of renewable energy. Even under the best circumstances, SMRs cannot reap their economic benefits due to engineering delays and costs overruns, similar to large-scale nuclear plants.  

Finally, a research article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2022, revealed that most SMR designs would increase the volume of nuclear waste and generate 2 to 30 times more nuclear waste than traditional nuclear power plants. In conclusion, the feasibility of SMR technology is still under review, with many countries facing delays and seeing poor economic benefits and lack of competitiveness in the power market.

 (Image Source: pixabay)

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