On federal investment in Small Modular Reactor technology

Taxpayers for Common Sense on February 27 issued a press release targeting the Department of Energy for “wasting more than half a billion dollars” on its small modular reactor (SMR) development cost-sharing program. Leaving aside the historically essential role of government investment in developing, advancing, and bringing to market innovative energy technologies—and the fact that early government investments in nuclear energy technology now pay back enormous dividends to all Americans in billions of dollars’ worth of affordable and emission-free electricity generation every year—many of the advantages of advanced SMR energy technologies were overlooked or misconstrued in the group’s press release and policy brief.

The press has virtually ignored the announcement, possibly because an advanced technology development cost-sharing program of $452 million, spread over five years, may not make for a big target in a multi-trillion-dollar annual federal budget. But it does present an opportunity to quickly point out a few important facts about SMR technology.

As a general statement, at this juncture in world history, it is almost impossible to overstate the critical importance of developing clean, versatile, energy-dense, and low-carbon-emission energy technologies for our future. SMRs show great promise to help achieve this vitally important goal.

B&W mPower SMR

In contrast to large nuclear reactors, which have enormous components that are shipped to and assembled at the site where they will operate, SMRs will be assembled in a factory, somewhat like a modular home. SMRs will use manufacturing capability currently entirely available in the United States. Construction time for SMRs will be greatly reduced compared to current larger-scale reactors. Upfront capital costs and debt loads sometimes prevent deployment of larger nuclear reactors, and the reduced cost and speedier construction time of individual SMR units will help lower this barrier to emission-free energy. SMRs will also offer great versatility for industrial applications. For example, SMRs are ideal for producing fresh water by desalination in many growing regions of the world. SMR designs offer advanced safety and proliferation-resistance features as well.

These factors will allow low-carbon energy technology in new locations and markets, and locations where alternative forms of energy are not available or attractive (e.g., natural gas price and availability vary widely in the United States and especially abroad). SMR technology also promises to build on U.S. global leadership in nuclear technology to allow new U.S. manufacturing exports to markets abroad.

SMR technologies will require significant review and approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before they can be built. The American Nuclear Society has taken a leadership role in addressing licensing issues for SMRs, and will continue to do so.

ANS recommends the U.S. government continue to expedite research on issues that must be addressed prior to commercial deployment of SMRs; identify and resolve SMR licensing issues; encourage the development and deployment of multiple SMR designs; and participate in programs that demonstrate the feasibility of multiple SMR designs and approaches to reduce the time to market. Note that much of the funding in the DOE’s SMR program is actually for helping to establish reliable licensing and inspection of the technology.

Finally, a quick historical observation is in order (thanks to Rod Adams’ excellent coverage of the Taxpayers for Common Sense SMR press conference). In historical context, government investments in natural gas and oil hydraulic fracturing research, as early as the 1970s and continuing in subsequent decades, share similarities to federal investment in SMR technology today. The oil and gas industry was already “mature” in the 1970s, yet federal research investment in new technology in the field now brings a very good return for taxpayers in terms of more abundant, cleaner, and less expensive natural gas energy (although certainly not clean by nuclear standards, it must be noted).

For more complete information, see American Nuclear Society Position Statement Small Modular Reactors and press release ANS supports the development of advanced energy technologies.

Babcock & Wilcox Refutes Mischaracterization of SMR Program

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15 Responses to On federal investment in Small Modular Reactor technology

  1. Tom Clements

    Where will the used reactors and the spent fuel be dumped and how will they be transported? Will this waste material to go back to factory where the modules were fabricated? One reason I ask is that I’m in South Carolina, where management at the Savannah River Site has been touting SMRs. But nobody will answer the question if the high-level waste would end up at SRS if the site were to produce the reactors.

    SRS, by the way, got caught spending DOE clean-up money (from the Office of Environmental Management) to promote SMRs and was directed by the Office of Management and Budget to stop doing that. The effort to spend clean-up money on SMRs continues, I hear. The clean-up of “legacy waste” at SRS is too important for any money to be diverted from it. SRS management needs to refocus its eyes on the urgent clean-up ball and not wander off pursuing highly speculative, unfunded ideas.

  2. There is little in the way of compelling economic reason to deploy the SMR in the U.S., as we have ample supplies of low-cost natural gas.

    There is little in the way of a compelling environmental reason to deploy the SMR, as “man-destroying-the-planet-by-emitting-CO2″ is speculation, at best.

    There is NO reason to spend tax payer money on the SMR. Perhaps it has escaped the ANS’s notice that the country is broke.

    If the SMR technology is actually a competitive way to produce power, then let the marketplace make the decision and industry risk their own money, as opposed to siphoning cash out of the taxpayer’s wallet . Incidentally, renewable energy should subject to the same criteria.

  3. Thomas Murray

    I am a nuclear engineer by training, and I support the SMR developments. However, should SMR development depend so heavily on US gov’t investment or subsidy? Rather, what we need from the US gov’t is a fast-track licensing process so that the SMR electrical production might occur faster to respond to investors. Yes, there are other industries where gov’t investment have occurred, but is it time to find another business model given the US federal budget issues? We have federal gov’t nuclear reservations, such as Hanford, Idaho Falls, etc. Is that another way the US gov’t might help the SMR industry: allow development of an SMR at one of these existing nuclear sites, again to advance the time table.

  4. bill eaton

    If all was left to the innovative and imaginative free market to develop new and better technologies, determine how to build applications, and make new technologies available to the public we would still be driving horses and buggies. Those folks like Mike who believe that government has no business in funding early research and developmental should never fly commercial, take medication, or watch television, let alone use the web to promote their opinions. Yes, this country is broke. Yes, we must work hard to spend wisely. R&D is one area that makes sense and we should strive to spend more of it. It’s a hoot how the anti-nukes use global warming controversy as their shield. Who cares if CO2 is a man made issue or not. The other compelling economic issues around the world including the expense of transporting energy resources and availability to developing areas is the hinge pin for SMR development. If SMR can displace large central power stations, then the grid needed to wheel power in the traditional sense can be greatly localized. Finally, I live in a strong natural gas production zone. Wells developed ten years ago are declining in production. Chesepeake wisely sold off much of its play to BP a few years back, and the controversy on fracking has overshadowed a bigger issue which is waste disposal. Re-injection wells have proven to be an issue. There is a lot still to come in the natural gas arena; and some of it is going to play out as an environmental issue with waste disposal at the forefront.

  5. Thomas Eiden

    “Leaving aside the historically essential role of government investment in developing, advancing, and bringing to market innovative energy technologies…”

    That could easily be disputed. Almost everything from the Industrial Revolution, Standard Oil, Great Northern Railroad, Thomas Edison’s inventions, Henry Ford’s vehicles, etc etc (all “energy” technologies). I could go on. On the contrary, I would say that the poor state of the nuclear industry today is as such because the industry relies on government welfare for both research and federal “investments”.

    Of course, much of that is due to the high cost of the crippling regulatory burden the industry faces. But that is a whole other topic.

  6. Would probably not be a bad deal to the the government cover the costs they make the business invest to satisfy the government. Or even better yet, reduce the burden the government places on the business. That would probably be better overall for the entire society.

  7. Bill Eaton

    I have been in the business for forty years and I do not see the regulatory burden as the crippling factor that some believe. I see the industry having earned post-TMI modifications, and even post-Fulushima reviews, just to mention a couple of examples. Are some of the investments due to regulatory mandate unnecessary? Of course they are, but that has not been the barrier that some believe it is, in my opinion. I see poor government performance in areas other than in the regulatory arena as having a much broader and more damaging influence on advancement of nuclear technology. The failure to live up to the promise of waste disposal and recycling is the biggest issue to date, and it provides much anti-nuke ammunition, as well as the failure to make something of the opportunity to create a carbon cap and trade environmnt. The poor history of energy policy or lack thereof. The government is more than the DOE ands its track record of public-private enterprise development. It is more than the unbalanced regulation of commercial power while allowing grievous isues with waste handling and diposal on federal reservations and weapons development sites. Government is the combincation of regulation, support and strategic investment, and the application of the public will throught the political process. When you add up all those gaps in progress, the regulators are a much smaller part of the equation. I would also hasten to add that those who argue most stridently about regulatory burden are in many cases those who need it the most.

  8. Thomas Eiden

    “I would also hasten to add that those who argue most stridently about regulatory burden are in many cases those who need it the most.”

    What an ugly thing to say. Thank you for insulting every engineer out there that believes they can think for themselves without the Nanny State telling them what to do.

  9. Thomas Eiden

    “If all was left to the innovative and imaginative free market to develop new and better technologies, determine how to build applications, and make new technologies available to the public we would still be driving horses and buggies. ”

    I’m sure Henry Ford, James J. Hill, Rockefeller, and many, many others just rolled over in their grave. Heck, whoever invented the horse and buggy did too. Most of the history of capitalism contradicts your claim.

  10. Bill Eaton

    Re: Thomas
    I apologize if I have poked your sensitivity to the role and position of engineers, although since I am one I’m puzzled that I don’t feel your pain. Let me be a bit more specific and note that in my experience the folks who complain most about regulation are the financial guys who don’t understand the technology anyway, not the engineers. And yes, I do also believe that people need to think for themselves. I also know that the engineers who designed the early systems and components probably should have considered additional human factors, simulator fidelity, and redundancy and diversity in control room instrumentation, to cite examples of what we did not foresee the need for before TMI. The regulator drove much of htis redesign, as you should be aware, and I for one have seen the benefit in mitigating risk during transients and complicated plant SCRAMS. I know some of the engineers who designed the early systems, and was personally involved in some of the backfit analyses and emergency system upgrades post-TMI. I regard the regulatory process as burdensome, yes, and necessary, based on the track record of performance cutting acros the entire industry.I have a laundry list of regulatory requirements that I would design differently if I were in charge; but regualtions didn’t cripple the industry; rather fear of the technology, a poor understanding of how to educate the public and promote the clean air benefits on the part of the owners did.

  11. Tom Clements

    OK, seems like nobody has a clue or isn’t saying where the SMR waste will be dumped. This is exactly the response I’ve gotten from Savannah River Site management. I have another question – through which port will the irradiated reactors and spent fuel be imported? Or, will the highly radioactive waste be left at the reactor site?

  12. Bill Eaton

    Hey,folks. I don’t know how we got off onto capitalism versus government support, but I’ll bet Henry and the rest of the Ford’s appreciate the fact that the governemtn built the roads. And, don’t forget that the dawn of railroads in this great land was supported by federal and state government stimulation due to grants of rights-of-way to the railroads in a sort of public-private deal as a means of promoting development and population growth towards the west. I think some of us are confusing capitalism, which is a social construct and type of economic model with innovation and inventiveness. Much of the history of capitalism, as specifically promoted by our government, is the opportunity to take advantage of tax policy, regulation, and yes, price support. I’ve got no beef with capitalism. I’m just reflecting on the reality of this new horizon and the real chances of the SMR. Does anyone think the technology will advance without government support?

  13. In terms of waste, these reactors are no different than the current (large) ones. They will generate about the same amount of PWR spent fuel per kW-hr generated. They will be stored on site (in a pool or in casks) until a repository or central storage site is developed and it is taken away. No, waste will not be taken back to teh factory. Note that most of these SMRs will probably be built on sites that already have large reactors.

    In other words, the development of these (LWR) reactors has nothing to do with the nuclear waste “problem”, or its solution. Different, independent problem. These reactors are meant to address cost/fabrication issues and offer even higher levels of safety (i.e., reduction in both probability and consequence of a serious accident/meltdown).

    In terms of waste stream, the central point is that the waste from these reactors is much less of a problem, and will cause much less harm, now and at any point in the future, than the waste streams of the fossil plants that would otherwide be used. That’s all that needs to be said.

  14. I disagree with most of this. Regulatory burden, and uniquely strict and onerous fabrication QA requirements are the biggest problem nuclear has today. Waste stream issues are not all that significant, as I discussed in my December ANS post. It’s only costing utilities ~0.1 cents/kW-hr (not enough to impact nuclear’s economics), and public support is not lacking in the areas where we are building (or thinking of building) reactors.

    The very high, and escalating up front cost of building reactors is far and away the biggest problem facing nuclear. If it could be built, on time and on budget, at a lower (compeititve) cost, w/o govt. support, the “debate” would be essentially over and there wouldn’t be too much resistance to new plants. This is the main thing that’s hurting us, with the majority of the public. Cost overruns, failure, and increasing utiltity bills.

    At this point, the regulatory burden is such that even existintg (built, paid off) plants like Kewanee can’t compete, due to operating costs alone. Another major issue, and source of political strain, is merely paying for the licensing of new reactors, let alone building them. It’s costing hundreds of millions of dollars and several years, even if one simply wants to build a carbon copy of another AP1000 reactor on a (thoroughly evaluated) site that already has existing reactors. What are they reviewing? I can’t see any reason why an SCOL application on an existing reactor site should take more than ~$50 million and a year or so (2 tops). Something must change.

  15. Of note is the fact that this federal aid is merely (mostly) going towards sharing the costs associated with the (unduly) burdensome process of licensing the reactor design. At times I wonder if the industry should even have to pay for licensing. Do other industries have to pay to be regulated (e.g., by EPA)? I thought EPA staffing was paid by tax dollars (although perhaps specific things like plant permitting may be paid by the applicant, not sure).

    Anyway, I sort of see it as an even trade. The govt. will help out this fledgeling industry by paying at least some of the costs of the (burdensome) licensing that the govt. itself is imposing.