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U.S. Small Modular Reactor Design ‘Too Late, Too Risky’, Analyst Concludes

The small modular reactor (SMR) that Oregon-based NuScale Power has been developing since the turn of the century is “too late, too expensive, too risky, and too uncertain,” according to an analysis conducted by an American think tank that recommends the project be abandoned.

Best estimates are that NuScale’s long-promised SMR won’t generate electricity before 2029, which—on top of a host of other challenges—just isn’t soon enough, says the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).
The IEEFA analysis dismisses NuScale’s claim that construction will be complete in less than 36 months, pointing out that “no new reactor has been built in the U.S. in that short a time in 60 years,” and recalling the company’s since retracted 2018 pledge to have the SMR generating power by 2026.

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IEEFA also queries NuScale’s projection that its SMR “will run at a 95% capacity factor during its entire life.” Of the 93 reactors operating in the United States, none have reached that goal, while only three “have averaged better than 85% during their first 10 years of operation.” IEEFA adds that “the median capacity factor for all U.S. reactors during these years has been only 67%.”

The analysis also points to the rising cost of construction. Responding to NuScale’s claim that it will build its SMR for less than US$3,000 per kilowatt (kW), IEEFA writes, “no nuclear power plant has been built that cheaply in decades,” adding that U.S. Department of Energy estimates are almost double NuScale’s, at more than $6,800/kW.

Those numbers add up to a significant financial threat “to the member communities of the Utah Associated Municipal Power System that have signed up for a share of its power and to any other communities and utilities thinking about doing so,” IEEFA says. The institute points to a corresponding difference between NuScale’s projection that it will generate power at a price of $58 per megawatt-hour (MWh), and other estimates that show consumer costs for power generated by new SMRs reaching $200/MWh.

Report author David Schlissel, IEEFA’s director of resource planning analysis, urged communities contemplating SMRs to shift to renewables instead because, even if the $58/MWh projection pans out, the expense is nearly double the cost of wind and utility-scale solar.

In addition to the anticipated high cost of SMR-generated power, “customers of communities and utilities that remain signed up for the project after construction begins will be liable for all of its costs and expenses,” including the cost of repairs if the SMR is damaged or destroyed, he added.

Elsewhere, Reuters reports that U.S. energy company Southern Co. has “boosted estimated costs for its Georgia Power utility’s share of two nuclear reactors under construction at the Vogtle plant in Georgia to around $10.4 billion from roughly $9.5 billion.”

Reuters adds that the reactors, “which are already billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, are the only U.S. nuclear units under construction.”

SMRs are nuclear fission reactors that are smaller than conventional nuclear plants like Vogtle, with about one-third the energy-generating capacity. 

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "U.S. Small Modular Reactor Design ‘Too Late, Too Risky’, Analyst Concludes"

#1 Comment By Pete Knollmeyer On February 22, 2022 @ 7:07 PM

Where is the balance in your article? IEEFA is not an independent non-profit. They are funded by foundations pushing renewables. I support renewables. I also support nuclear power. The IEEFA report is rife with opinion, mis-statements and mis-represented data. Why not cite studies like MIT 2018 that show a mix of renewables and nuclear is the lowest cost, reliable grid for the consumer. IEEFA analysis on capacity factor is insulting to the nuclear industry. By averaging in early data (1970s and 1980s), IEEFA has lowered the capacity factors nuclear achieves. IEEFA failed to mention that 15 USA reactors have exceeded the 95% capacity factor already over the past three years. Maintenance and reliability have come a long way since the 1980s and NuScale is a further step improvement. Reactor capacity factor is much less a function of start-up performance and more influenced by maintenance practice and refueling outage management. I could give a dozen other examples of mis-truths in the IEEFA analysis. I would love to see some independent challenge of the IEEFA story by media outlets that support the truth, not the agenda of special interests.

#2 Comment By Mitchell Beer On February 24, 2022 @ 9:35 AM

Thanks, Pete. I don’t know anything about IEEFA’s funding, but my first reaction was…you’re saying it’s a *bad* thing if their funding comes from foundations that understand what renewables can do and want to help them get there faster? More broadly, I’m not sure any entity that needs reliable cash flow of any kind to support its work (so that’s every organization and, for that matter, every household everywhere) can ever be 100% independent. So what we look for when we’re sourcing stories is a consistent record for gathering the evidence and following where it leads, and that’s why IEEFA is one of our most trusted references.

#3 Comment By David Schlissel On February 24, 2022 @ 3:58 PM

IEEFA’s mission, presented on its website, is to “accelerate the transition to a diverse, sustainable and profitable energy economy.” Now that doesn’t preclude new nuclear investments if we believed that building a new nuclear SMR would be the most economic and fastest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Unfortunately, based on actual industry experience, we don’t believe that is true, and besides pure speculation and misleading use of the present tense when discussing what the NuScale SMR does, NuScale doesn’t have any actual data to convince us or, we expect, many or even most people who have open minds on the subject. I say misleading use of the present tense because, as we note in the report, on its website NuScale claims the wonderful things that its SMR does. The only problem with that is there is no actual NuScale SMR yet. Oops.
As for the 15 reactors achieving 95% capacity factors over the past three years. If accurate that is a good achievement. But NuScale is claiming that it will do that for a full 40 or 60, or even 80, year operating life. No reactor has done that, and as we showed, very few have even come close.
Finally, give me a hand Peter, how about naming each of the dozen other mistruths in our report on SMRs. If you do that, we’ll make whatever corrections in our report are warranted. That’s more productive than throwing around unsupported attacks.
By the way, if you or anyone else at Fluor or at NuScale would like to discuss or debate with us about these issues and the accuracy of your and NuScale’s claims, we’re open to that.

#4 Comment By Mitchell Beer On February 24, 2022 @ 6:24 PM

We would totally host that debate. Webinar, anyone?

(Peter, David, I’m not kidding. We already have a session booked for next month — mark your calendar for March 24, and watch this site for details. But would you gents like to join us for a structured, moderated session in April?)

#5 Comment By David Schlissel On February 24, 2022 @ 8:51 PM

We’re in.


#6 Comment By Acme Fixer On February 25, 2022 @ 3:52 PM

Neither you nor IEEFA make the decisions on whether or not new nuclear power plants are the choice for the future. The utilities and to some extent the NIMBY ratepayers make those decisions, and after seeing not only Vogtle, but other new NPPs in other countries, they are deciding that new NPPs are not the best choice. Renewables are nearly half the cost per kWh, and are still getting cheaper. And pumped hydro storage along with renewables can more than adequately provide dispatchable power. And at a much lower cost and faster time to bring online. Utilities have had it with billions of dollars in cost overruns and decades of construction delays. Until those two problems are solved the new NPPs will not be considered.

#7 Comment By Acme Fixer On February 25, 2022 @ 3:58 PM