With the nuclear industry pinning its survival hopes on smaller, less expensive reactor designs, a recent article on IEEE Spectrum argues the approach has been tried in the past—and failed.
“Although concerns about climate change have led energy planners to retain nuclear power as an option, the technology remains in stasis or decline throughout the Americas and Europe,” reports author M.V. Ramana, and “a fundamental reason for this decline is indeed economic.” A megawatt-hour of electricity from a new nuclear reactor costs US$92 to US$132, compared to $61 to $87 for a natural-gas combined-cycle plant, $37 to $81 for wind turbines, and $72 to $86 for utility-scale solar. (And standard calculations for nuclear don’t factor in unquantified costs like long-term nuclear waste disposal, or the public liability governments must accept in the event of a major reactor accident).
The brochure for a 2012 conference on Small Modular Reactors pointed to the “huge, billion-dollar challenges” posed by traditional nuclear plants, Ramana reports, arguing that SMRs “are the perfect solution to this problem by mitigating billions in financial risk, growing incrementally with power demand, and offering shorter and easier construction schedules. It claims a “global and extremely vast” global market for the new designs, stating that “the power industry is crying out for commercial SMR projects throughout the world.”
But if that’s the case, “the power industry is likely to be disappointed,” Ramana responds. “Small reactors, in fact, date back to the earliest days of atomic power, and this long history shouldn’t be overlooked as vendors tout new generations of the technology. As the history makes clear, small nuclear reactors would be neither as cheap nor as easy to build and operate as their modern proponents are claiming they would be.”