There are many problems with what is billed as the “next generation” fleet of nuclear power plants, beginning with the fact that they do not exist. 

Yet proponents of these plants, and the billions of dollars in public money they seek to pay for them, speak of them as if they are working, proven, technological masterpieces which are ready to immediately begin powering the economy while helping to save the planet.

It should first be noted that while proponents refer to them as carbon-free, just like plants powered by air and water, they are not.  While the power plants themselves do not emit much in the way of greenhouse gasses, the plants are the end of a pipeline and they cannot be fairly discussed without including the fuel cycle. That includes the mining, refining and enrichment.  Uranium in its natural state is about 0.7% U-235, which is fissionable. The ore has to go through an extensive enrichment process to bring it up to 5% and make it a usable fuel. The current method employing gas centrifuges is a huge improvement over the energy-intensive gas diffusion method, which utilized CFCs in its cooling process and released hundreds of tons of that greenhouse gas into the atmosphere annually. 

The Montreal Protocols banning CFCs had an exception for processing nuclear fuel. 

That is why the Department of Energy refers to nuclear power as low-carbon, rather than carbon free.

A. Cost

This is an unknown, whether one is speaking of Small Modular Reactors producing 50 to 350 MegaWatts of power, or larger plants generating 1,000 MW or more. Historically, the final price  is 3 or more times the initial estimate. The new AP-1000 being built at the Vogtle Generating Station in Georgia was billed as a $6 billion project. The cost is now approaching $30 billion, and climbing.

Similarly, the developers of the NuScale  SMR  pegged the cost of the 60 MW unit at $3 billion in 2015. That had climbed to $6.1 Billion in 2020. Keep in mind that that is an estimate for a reactor that exists only on paper.  When the development of the AP-1000 fell far behind schedule at the Summer generating station in South Carolina, Bechtel was brought in to do an analysis. The most stunning conclusion of theirs was that much of the work on paper was actually “unbuildable” and engineers had to jury-rig the system on the fly on a daily basis.

   1. Why should investors, public officials, or citizens have any confidence that the actual cost of a new reactor won’t be far above the relatively reasonable figure the plant backers have put forward? 

   2. If these plants will be so reliable, why can’t backers find funding in the private sector? Why do they need a government handout ( or, as the Trump republicans call it, socialism?)

   3. Proponents of SMRs claim that their plants cost in the neighborhood of $6 billion and are far preferable — and affordable — than the large, 1,000 MW plants.  But you would need 20 SMRs producing 50 MW to replace a typical, ageing, 1,000 MW plant. NuScale is selling its SMRs in bundles of 12.  The final price of these plants, therefore, far exceed the cost of the average Light Water Reactor. And if they are built, operators would have to charge so much for the electricity in order to recoup their investment that they could not compete in the power marketplace. Costs for electricity from the NuScale plant — if it is built — range from $55 per kilowatt/hour to $121 per Kw/h. How then, would they compete with renewables which are selling power at $39 Kw/h? 

   4. Proponents claim that the construction of SMRs would benefit from  the economics of scale and, therefore, the price would drop over time.  How can they back that up? Economies of scale come into play when a company is producing hundreds of them, and has time to evaluate the early products and make refinements to improve manufacturing and the performance of the product. But  that is not the case. There are currently more than 150 SMR designs under consideration by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and none of them has been certified, built, tested, or sold. Each prototype that makes it through the screening process and actually gets built will be a “one-off.”  So where are the manufacturing savings that the industry is touring?

B. Timing

   In addition to the high cost of small or large nuclear power plants, there is the issue of time. It takes more than a decade to certify a design and build a nuclear power plant. And while there are many proposals, investors would wait to see how the first few do before backing any more — which means more decades pass. What is the justification of committing billions of dollars and decades on unproven technologies when the planet is running out of time to reverse the increase of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere? Why commit billions of dollars and tens of years to a possible power source when that precludes wide expansion of wind and solar power, whose plants are cheaper and take 2 to 3 years to build. And residential solar takes only weeks.

Roger Witherspoon,
Board Member: Society of Environmental Journalists 2011-2020
Contributing Editor: US Black Engineer & IT