Advanced Small Modular Nuclear Reactors: A Decarbonization Tool to Combat Climate Change


As our world continues to face unprecedented natural disasters and global temperature rise, it’s apparent that all options must be considered in the endeavor to eliminate fossil fuels — and their damaging emission levels — in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. This target, recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is necessary for keeping global warming under the safe 1.5 ºC threshold. This means finding ways to meet rising global energy demand with clean energy sources. With over a billion people expected to gain access to electricity by midcentury, we must ask — where will this gargantuan amount of power come from? How will we supply poorer countries expected to grow significantly in the coming decades? The popular answer is renewables alone, but this is a fantasy. While wind and solar may be more financially feasible in terms of construction costs and scalability than other alternatives at this time, they are still intermittent resources, and batteries with the capacity for storing massive amounts of energy for weeks at a time show no signs of materializing any time soon. In my view, then, any viable clean energy strategy must include the advancement of robust policies supporting the research and development of Advanced Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMRs), the next iteration of nuclear technology.

NuScale Power, an Oregan-based startup that has been operating for the past 20 years out of a high bay laboratory on the Oregon State University campus, is leading the development of SMRs. Their design doesn’t include massive cooling towers nor does it require a sprawling emergency zone. In fact, they are prefabricated with modular technology on a production line, and can be flexibly located near industrial sites or rural communities, eliminating both long-distance energy transmission costs and risks — such as the chances of sparking a wildfire — while delivering cheaper, more reliable power. Furthermore, they come equipped with passive safety features which require no operator intervention, no AC or DC power, and no additional water for safe shutdown. They are essentially the first self-protecting reactors.

The size and cost of advanced SMRs also makes them more attractive to utilities. Funding a 50-megawatt reactor, for instance, is more feasible for a much broader range of utilities than a traditional 1,000-megawatt power plant — which can cost upwards of $6 billion dollars in the United States. Developers are creating simpler designs, mostly prefabricated, in order to reduce overall construction and operating costs, making them more competitive with other forms of energy generation such as renewables and natural gas.

Beyond reactor safety concerns, nuclear waste and storage is typically cited in most environmental circles as the primary argument against the utilization of nuclear technology. Currently, in the United States, we have approximately 90,000 metric tons of nuclear waste — all tracked and traceable. To put it in perspective, that amount of waste would equate to the size of a standard Walmart or a football field about 20 meters deep. By comparison, the average coal-fired power plant generates as much waste in an hour as nuclear has in its entire history. For SMRs to truly live up to their potential as clean energy generators, a secure permanent repository for nuclear waste in the United States must be developed.

As a direct consequence of the lack of centralized waste repository, commercial nuclear power plants have turned to other interim storage options, such as wet pool and dry cask storage. However, these interim sites are exactly that, interim. And as with most crises, including climate change, the longer we delay, the higher the costs will be on the backend. Building out more interim sites while we wait for a permanent solution is a costly undertaking in itself — with conservative estimates hovering in the range of $24.7 billion in projected future liabilities. Each year of delay, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), adds approximately $500 million to those federal liabilities. And according to a 2019 Congressional Research Service report, the federal government has already been forced to pay an estimated $7.4 billion to nuclear utilities. This is a result of a settlement over the decades-long delay in establishing a permanent geologic repository — per the The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. For these reasons, it is critical policymakers assist with devising a community-integrated approach in selecting a permanent repository. Without a safe, secure repository, nuclear will continue to face pushback from politicians and community stakeholders alike while suffering the mounting fees that accompany the delay.

If advanced reactors are to make it to the market, the government needs to have more skin in the game. As with any new technology, this nascent industry faces considerable upfront costs, long development time frames and an uncertain regulatory environment. Many of these advanced reactors, such as the NuScale design, are in the development phase — which means high expenses and no return on investment. Cost-sharing partnerships between the federal government and developers can offer a path forward in easing these financial burdens. Take for instance the Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories located throughout the country — these can serve as secure testing grounds for these emerging technologies and mitigate some of the costs.

At the same time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) needs to devise a modernized pathway for licensing approval for companies seeking to commercialize advanced reactors to have any traction. As mentioned previously, startups and even large companies rarely can raise the capital needed for licensing, much less a decades long process of review. The longer the United States takes to remedy this burdensome, excessively bureaucratic process, the more likely this technology will find its home in another country. Even more pressing is the stark reality that global temperatures are rising and we need immediate solutions. In nuclear circles, it has been recommended that since many “paper reactors” never make it the licensing process, the NRC needs to consider options for regulating advanced reactor technologies that provide a reasonable path to licensing, while also ensuring the safety of civilian nuclear operations in the United States.

SMR technology isn’t the end-all solution to climate change, but it should be leveraged as a critical tool in both domestic and international decarbonization strategies. Advanced nuclear is not the boogie-man of the energy sector — but rather, quite the opposite. And as the true enormity of climate change sinks in and the hoped-for carbon savings from renewables don’t pencil out, advanced nuclear can take the stage as a safe, reliable and carbon-free alternative. Because the reality of the situation is, we’re running out of time.

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