Mini Nukes

The much-hyped “nuclear renaissance” of small nuclear reactors seems over before it began – so why is Canada spending tax dollars on the idea?

D. S. Geary

Photo by IAEA CC, cropped from original

The much-hyped “nuclear renaissance,” based on a proposed new generation of small modular reactors (SMRs), seems over before it began. That’s because of the rapid growth of cheaper renewable energy, energy storage technologies, greatly improved energy efficiency, plentiful low-cost natural gas, and staggeringly large costs for new nuclear plants large or small. In addition there are deep concerns about nuclear’s unique hazards — extremely long-lived environmental contamination, and radioactive waste lasting into eternity.

Yet in 2018 the Government of Canada, through the Ministry of Natural Resources, is spending huge sums of tax dollars promoting a new generation of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) – none of them ever tested.

Many analysts and experts say that there is no demand for these unnecessary and speculative SMR designs. They would perpetuate, and even exacerbate, existing problems with nuclear power, and be incapable of realistically addressing climate change. Unless Canadians speak out, a lot of money will be wasted, a lot of nuclear contamination created, and a lot of damage done, even if SMRs turn out to be just another spectacular technological flop.

As far back as May 2012, Forbes magazine noted that there is no demonstrated market for SMRs, partly because they simply cannot compete with low emission combined-cycle gas-fired power plants at one quarter of the cost. Between 2012 and 2018 the cost disparity has grown even larger.

““I don’t think we are building any more nuclear plants in the United States…. Right now the costs on the SMRs  are prohibitive.”

Ironically, the first reactor designs in the 1960s were small, but grew over the decades, to take advantage of the economies of scale. From a financial and efficiency perspective, then, the return to small is a retrograde move.

Safety parameters for these devices are unknown. Regulations for exclusion zones, staffing, emergency evacuation zones, legal liability insurance, terrorist and criminal security standards, arms proliferation risks, and earthquake and flood regulations would all have to be rewritten. Many SMR designs situate the reactor core underground, aggravating the problems of groundwater contamination, flooding, and earthquake vulnerability. Spent fuel management and security would be much more complex and expensive. Numerous small units also add security concerns.

Prominent American nuclear physicist Edwin Lyman has stated that SMRs are all in the “stage of fantasy.” He characterized the public discussion of them as “irrational exuberance.”

Our On the Yellowcake Trail series tracks all aspects of uranium in Canada through its 80+ year history, from mining and processing to the very sticky waste issue.

In April 2018, William Von Hoene, Senior VP of Exelon, the US’ largest nuclear operator, told the US Energy Association’s annual meeting in Washington: “I don’t think we are building any more nuclear plants in the United States…. Right now the costs on the SMRs, in part because of the size and in part because of the security that is associated with any nuclear plant, are prohibitive.”

In a 2014 online MIT journal article, “Small Modular Nuclear Reactors and the Future of Nuclear Power,” Mark Cooper, PhD, of Vermont Law School and Yale University, concluded that SMRs are all but dead – demonstrated by the scale-backs of major players Babcock & Wilcox and Westinghouse, the technology’s poor economics, and the general lack of customer interest.

The signs seem clear: small modular reactors are a non-starter in the energy marketplace. Canadian taxpayers’ money should not be squandered on this risky, retro, uncompetitive, expensive, and completely unnecessary venture. We should commit our resources to a broad range of more modern energy options.

Adapted from a fact sheet by the Coalition for a Clean Green Saskatchewan, 2018

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