Small modular nuclear reactors get a reality check in new report

Small modular nuclear reactors get a reality check in new report
An artist's rendering of the BWRX-300 small modular reactor from GE Hitachi, which is slated to start operating in Canada in 2028
An artist's rendering of the BWRX-300 small modular reactor from GE Hitachi, which is slated to start operating in Canada in 2028
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An artist's rendering of the BWRX-300 small modular reactor from GE Hitachi, which is slated to start operating in Canada in 2028
An artist's rendering of the BWRX-300 small modular reactor from GE Hitachi, which is slated to start operating in Canada in 2028
SMR costs have a habit of blowing past initial estimates
SMR costs have a habit of blowing past initial estimates
It takes a lot longer than the plans indicate to actually build SMRs
It takes a lot longer than the plans indicate to actually build SMRs
View gallery - 4 images

A new report has assessed the feasibility of deploying small modular nuclear reactors to meet increasing energy demands around the world. The findings don't look so good for this particular form of energy production.

Small modular nuclear reactors (SMR) are generally defined as nuclear plants that have capacity that tops out at about 300 megawatts, enough to run about 30,000 US homes. According to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), which prepared the report, there are about 80 SMR concepts currently in various stages of development around the world.

While such reactors were once thought to be a solution to the complexity, security risks, and costs of large-scale reactors, the report asks if continuing to pursue these smaller nuclear power plants is a worthwhile endeavor in terms of meeting the demand for more and more energy around the globe.

The answer to this question is pretty much found in the report's title: "Small Modular Reactors: Still Too Expensive, Too Slow, and Too Risky."

If that's not clear enough though, the report's executive summary certainly gets to the heart of their findings.

"The rhetoric from small modular reactor (SMR) advocates is loud and persistent: This time will be different because the cost overruns and schedule delays that have plagued large reactor construction projects will not be repeated with the new designs," says the report. "But the few SMRs that have been built (or have been started) paint a different picture – one that looks startlingly similar to the past. Significant construction delays are still the norm and costs have continued to climb."

Too Expensive

The cost of SMRs is at the forefront of the report's argument against the deployment of the reactors. According to some of the data it provides, all three SMRs currently operating (plus one now being completed in Argentina) went way over budget, as this graph shows.

SMR costs have a habit of blowing past initial estimates
SMR costs have a habit of blowing past initial estimates

The report authors also point out that a project in Idaho called NuScale had to be scrapped because during its development between 2015 and 2023, costs soared from $9,964 per kilowatt to $21,561 per kilowatt. Additionally, the costs for three other small plants in the US have all skyrocketed dramatically from their initial cost assessments.

Not only are the excessive costs of building SMRs problematic in and of themselves, says the IEEFA, but the money being poured into the projects is money that is not being spent on developing other sources of energy that are cleaner, quicker to deploy, and safer.

"It is vital that this debate consider the opportunity costs associated with the SMR push," write the authors. "The dollars invested in SMRs will not be available for use in building out a wind, solar and battery storage resource base. These carbon-free and lower-cost technologies are available today and can push the transition from fossil fuels forward significantly in the coming 10 years – years when SMRs will still be looking for licensing approval and construction funding."

Such a debate has been considered by the reactor developers, argues X-Energy, which suggests that there is a basic flaw in IEEFA's study. "The information cited by IEEFA is inclusive of all program costs (including all engineering, development, and initial licensing efforts)," the company's Robert McEntyre tells New Atlas. "This effectively assigns nearly all costs of the company to one project, which is not representative because each subsequent project will benefit from all of the initial work to bring our technology to market.

"Using IEEFA’s methodology, you could assign all of the engineering and development costs of the iPhone to the first iPhone (probably in the $ billions itself) and then claim it’s not a feasible product because it’s wildly expensive. This is a stark departure from the standard practice of accounting up front costs required to bring a product to market."

Too Slow

That last comment from the IEEFA report authors also gets to another of the report's findings: that building SMRs simply takes too much time. The Shidao Bay project in China, for example, was supposed to take four years to build, but actually took 12; the Russian Ship Borne project had an estimated completion time of three years, but took 13; and the ongoing CAREM project in Argentina was supposed to be done in four years, but it's now in its 13th year of development.

It takes a lot longer than the plans indicate to actually build SMRs
It takes a lot longer than the plans indicate to actually build SMRs

The report also points out that the MPower PWR project, which was one of the first planned SMRs in the US, had its plug pulled in 2017 after it was clear it wouldn't meet its 2022 deployment date – a decision that effectively wasted the $500 million that had already been spent on the effort.

"Despite this real-world experience, Westinghouse, X-Energy and NuScale, among others, continue to claim they will be able to construct their SMRs in 36 to 48 months, perhaps quickly enough to have them online by 2030," write the authors. "GE-Hitachi even claims it ultimately will be able to construct its 300MW facility in as little as 24 months.

"Admittedly, there is a not-zero chance this is possible, but it flies in the face of nuclear industry experience, both in terms of past SMR development and construction efforts and the larger universe of full-size reactors, all of which have taken significantly longer than projected to begin commercial operation."

Despite breakthroughs in SMR manufacturing, such as the welding advance that allows workers to put together an SMR reactor vessel in 24 hours instead of 12 months, the time it takes to get these facilities into the field will likely continue to be a major barrier to their adoption.

Too Risky

Both the unpredictable costs and the extraordinary building delays makes SMR development just too big of a risk, says the IEEFA. But that's not the only potential peril. Because the technology for this small-scale nuclear facility is fairly new and untested, risks could exist in terms of functionality and safety as well. For example, the authors question if the new SMRs will actually be able to output the kind of power they claim. Based on cost and development estimates going so widely afield, the sense in the report is that power output claims could also be off.

In terms of safety, the report quotes a 2023 study for the US Air Force that said: "Since SMR technology is still developing and is not deployed in the US, information is scarce concerning the various costs for [operations & maintenance], decommissioning and end-of-life dissolution, property restoration and site clean-up and waste management."

The authors also point out that because many SMRs are being built using identical technologies, if a component of that tech fails, it could easily affect reactors around the world.

For example, they bring up the fact that steam generators have needed to be replaced at more than 110 pressurized water reactors (PWRs), with half of those operating in the US, because of the denting and wall thinning of tubes made from a material called "heat-treated Alloy 600."

"We’re not arguing that new SMRs will have these same issues," they write. "We expect that the design and material decisions made for SMRs will reflect remedial measures taken at existing reactors. Our concern is broader in that a problem at one SMR might have serious repercussions at many other SMRs with the same standardized design."


So: too expensive, too slow, and too risky. And not at all where we should be focussing our, um – energy – these days, as the study authors make clear in their conclusion.

"At least 375,000 MW of new renewable energy generating capacity is likely to be added to the US grid in the next seven years," they say. "By contrast, IEEFA believes it is highly unlikely any SMRs will be brought online in that same time frame. The comparison couldn’t be clearer. Regulators, utilities, investors and government officials should acknowledge this and embrace the available reality: Renewables are the near-term solution."

You can read the full report in PDF format online.

Source: IEEFA

View gallery - 4 images
The cost overruns and time overruns aren't a problem: just write firm contracts for the price for the power, with serious compensation for not delivering on time. If failure isn't subsidized by taxpayers, there simply won't be any proposals to build any. Is the potential profitability of many new technologies simply based on milking subsidies?
1) If private commercial enterprises and other investors want to spend money on a new technology that may or may not be successful is not the business of anyone else; and the hectoring language in the report suggests to me that they have an agenda.
2) I would ask the writers of this report how many tens of billions of subsidy dollars (i.e. your money and mine) have gone into renewables, and over what time period, in order to bring their production price points to where they are now?
In short, they could be right and they could be wrong, but what is the purpose of a somewhat polemical report like this? One has to wonder.
If the Navy can build nuclear subs and a private company can build a nuclear cargo ship; then we can build smr and nano sized nukes.
the question is, "Will it be essential to build a lot of them and spread the power around rather than spend all the $ to rebuild our lousy grid and expand it?"
The grid is failing. With SMRs spread out, they could replace coal and peaker power plants as well as most of the grid. We would just have to continue to
build new grid connections from large storage batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines to the grid. We are having to build those connections anyway, so
no more huge grid replacements for a while or expense.
I have no idea what Mr. Franco's qualifications are, but my qualifications are ZERO. However maybe 10 SMRs along the West Coast could replace a lot of
power plants or fill into the upcoming power needs.
That well and truly sucks. One reason costs have skyrocketed is that all companies were allowed to almost double their prices since and during the Covid scam. I thought the only delay with NuScale was the Russian-sourced fuel pellets. Nuclear is the future if we can kick out the golddiggers and greedy businesses, and keep regulations down to reality.
Funny. Solar and wind use to be “ too expensive, too slow, and too risky.” Good thing we never invested in them.
For most SMR that is true but for lead cooled or Pebble bed, both very simple inherently walk away safe designs, it isn't.

A pebble bed is just a pipe filled with tiny fuel balls made so can't melt down and can be held in your hand as not active unless many are together. Cooling is helium and that is about it running a tri generation.
So safe thy can be used in downtowns as a CHP unit for heat, power. In the 1-50Mw size and factory built can be installed in 3 yrs or less.
Now 3 different portable ones are being made for the US military would also be great for ships.
(Michael, please append this to my earlier comment. Thanks.)
I downloaded the 23 page report. After seeing page 3 (key findings) of the report, I take it that the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis is manned by the rabid eco Left and/or by the traditional oil-based industry. You don't often see references to suggestions putting the utilities' shareholder funds at risk, warning investment bankers, and comparing everything to existing renewables and their alternatives. The whole thing looks like a hit piece on nuclear energy. Caustic headlines "Too Expensive", "Too Slow", "Too Risky". Image headers "Nuclear Construction Reality vs. Rhetoric". Using the word "rhetoric" is not analytical, it's judgmental and negative. I cry FOUL!
The reality check is a little pessimistic. Any new technology incurs research and development costs. It's much higher with the regulatory approvals required in the nuclear power industry. And calling a 250 MW reactor custom built on site a small modular reactor is a joke. Some companies call their smaller reactors SMRs, probably so they can cash in on the government incentives for SMR development, but they're not, actually. To date, no one has built an SMR on an assembly line to take advantage of the efficiencies of assembly line production, and no one will until there are orders for more than a few. All that takes time. But to dismiss SMRs out of hand is silly. The alternative is continuing to build the expensive custom reactors that have been built for the last 70 years. The cost of advantages of SMRs will not be realized until someone builds more than one, does it on an assembly line, and the R&D expenses have been amortized. Which takes time.
Why don't we just build massive solar in the desert southwest? Endless sun and endless open spaces...
"Based on things that aren't SMRs, we calaulate that SMRs will be naughty, bad, wicked, and double plus ungood. We Consider those technical terms. No, none of us are nuclear scientists or engineers. Why do you ask? No no." Jedi hand motion. "You don't need to see our credentials."

Sanity check: Taking the NuScale 23 cost of $23k per kW... That kilowatt will generate 8,766kWh of energy per year, valued at ~$1,100 (at 12.5 cents per kWh) and will pay for itself in 21 years. Those aren't horrible operating numbers, but that is a pretty bad for any investors looking to make a quick buck. Which is all that IEEFA (allegedly) cares about.
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