Arguments that the future of nuclear fission lies in the development of small modular reactors ignore both the rise of renewables and the reality that still-expensive SMRs lack the one thing most fundamental to their success—a market, according to M.V. Ramana, professor of public policy and global affairs at the University of British Columbia, in a recent post for The Energy Collective.
As appealing as tailgate nuclear might seem (to some), SMR technology is unlikely ever to gain traction when it just can’t “compete economically with other sources of electricity,” Ramana writes. “The share of global electricity generated by nuclear power has dropped from 17.5% in 1996 to 10.5% in 2016 and is expected to continue falling,” he notes. And while the small modules are cheaper to build than large plants, which would theoretically permit “smaller private utilities and countries with smaller GDPs to invest in nuclear power,” SMRs “lose out on economies of scale,” compared to larger reactors that cost less on a per-megawatt basis.
Ramana recalls U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, at an October clean energy conference in Washington, touting SMRs in the wake of Hurricane Maria. “Wouldn’t it make abundant good sense if we had small modular reactors that literally you could put in the back of a C-17, transport to an area like Puerto Rico, push it out the back end, crank it up, and plug it in?” he asked his audience.
But while “SMR proponents argue that they can make up for the lost economies of scale by savings through mass manufacture in factories and resultant learning,” Ramana notes that “to achieve such savings, these reactors have to be manufactured by the thousands”—and from one standardized model. The evolution of that standard is unlikely, given that “currently dozens of SMR designs are at various stages of development,” and none of them will be easily discarded by those with a stake in them.
Even with that unusual level of collaboration, it would be difficult to lure the necessary investment to mass manufacture them in the absence of a clear and present market. While “many developing countries claim to be interested in SMRs,” he says, “few seem to be willing to invest in the construction of one.”
As for Perry’s “good sense” vision of rapid SMR deployment, “neither nuclear reactor companies, nor any governments that back nuclear power, are willing to spend the hundreds of millions, if not a few billions, of dollars to set up SMRs,” just to deliver nuclear electricity to small, remote communities, Ramana contends. That’s especially true when companies like Tesla are already able and willing to pack a solar+battery array into the nearest available transport and get it deployed.