Report: Small modular reactors face uphill battles
By Andy Giegerich
Sustainable Business Oregon editor
The IEER report suggests that NuScale, which operates from this design center in Corvallis, and other small modular reactor developers would require billions in advance orders to build their markets.
A new report suggests that small modular reactor projects would require massive order volumes, involvement from Chinese companies and large taxpayer subsidies in order to be viable.
The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank, called out Corvallis’s NuScale Power among projects in seven states that would “likely require tens of billions of dollars in federal subsidies or government purchase orders, create new reliability vulnerabilities, as well as serious concerns in relation to both safety and proliferation.”
The report is called “Light Water Designs of Small Modular Reactors: Facts and Analysis,” and focuses on light water reactor designs.
NuScale has put in for tens of millions of Department of Energy funds in order to back its small modular reactor developments. NuScale’s small modular reactors feature “first-of-its-kind passive safety design, years of real-world testing of its technology and almost 100 patents,” according to the company.
The company is also working with Oregon and other Western states on a demonstration project that will study the “deployment of safe, affordable nuclear energy” from small modular reactors.
The IEER report suggests that it would require $90 billion in initial orders for small modular reactors to pencil out.
“SMR proponents claim that small size will enable mass manufacturing in a factory and shipment to the site as an assembled unit, which will enable considerable savings in two ways,” IEER researchers wrote. “It would reduce onsite construction cost and time. Second, mass manufacturing will make up in economies of volume production what is lost in economies of scale. In other words, modular reactors will be economical because they will be more like assembly-line cars than hand-made Lamborghinis … A hundred [mPower] reactors, each costing about $900 million, including construction costs … would amount to an order book of $90 billion, leaving aside the industry’s record of huge cost escalations.”
The figure struck Mike McGough, NuScale’s chief commercial officer who’d received a couple of the report’s details, as “absurd.” He also disputed IEER’s claim that smaller-scale work is more expensive than larger-scale modular reactors.
“They’ve got it backwards: The cost of bringing large reactors online are associated with the number and complexity of the components and the number of hours associated with the field construction,” he said. “With small modular reactors, we eliminate many of the constraints and instead rely on physics.
“We rely on convection, conduction and gravity. We don’t need all the other elements.”
Arjun Makhijani, IEER’s president who wrote the report, said the SMR supply chain would likely emerge in other countries — most likely China — “even if the designs are proven and tested in the United States.”
He asked, “Why would China order large numbers of U.S. reactors when it can set up its own supply chain and can manufacture industrial goods more cheaply?”
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