Sunday, July 29, 2018

Small Modular Reactors Have Little Appeal

The last hope of the nuclear industry for competing with renewables is small modular reactors, but despite political support their future looks bleak.

Nuclear submarines (here in San Diego Bay) use SMRs. [Image Credit: Jon Sullivan (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons] Click to Enlarge.
On both sides of the Atlantic billions of dollars are being poured into developing small modular reactors.  But it seems increasingly unlikely that they will ever be commercially viable.

The idea is to build dozens of the reactors (SMRs) in factories in kit form, to be assembled on site, thereby reducing their costs, a bit like the mass production of cars.  The problem is finding a market big enough to justify the building of a factory to build nuclear power station kits.

For the last 60 years the trend has been to build ever-larger nuclear reactors, hoping that they would pump out so much power that their output would be cheaper per unit than power from smaller stations.  However, the cost of large stations has escalated so much that without massive government subsidies they will never be built, because they are not commercially viable.

To get costs down, small factory-built reactors seemed the answer.  It is not new technology, and efforts to introduce it are nothing new either, with UK hopes high just a few years ago.  Small reactors have been built for decades for nuclear submarine propulsion and for ships like icebreakers, but for civilian use they have to produce electricity more cheaply than their renewable competitors, wind and solar power.

One of the problems for nuclear weapons states is that they need a workforce of highly skilled engineers and scientists, both to maintain their submarine fleets and constantly to update the nuclear warheads, which degrade over time.  So maintaining a civil nuclear industry means there is always a large pool of people with the required training.

Although in the past the UK and US governments have both claimed there is no link between civil and military nuclear industries, it is clear that a skills shortage is now a problem.

It seems that both the industry and the two governments have believed SMRs would be able to solve the shortage and also provide electricity at competitive rates, benefitting from the mass production of components in controlled environments and assembling reactors much like flat-pack furniture.

This is now the official blueprint for success – even though there are no prototypes yet to prove the technology works reliably.  But even before that happens, there are serious doubts about whether there is a market for these reactors.

Read more at Small Modular Reactors Have Little Appeal

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