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Nuclear Power – It’s About the Buzz

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There’s been a bit of “buzz” lately about the possibility that a new kind of nuclear reactor might come to the Idaho National Laboratory. It’s based on a July 1 press release from NuScale Power, a nuclear reactor developer in Oregon that has never built a nuclear reactor. NuScale’s press release announced that its small modular reactor (SMR) was the preferred technology of the Western Initiative for Nuclear, aka “WIN.” Idaho newspapers, including the Idaho Statesman and the Idaho Falls Post Register, passed on the news to their readers.

The idea behind SMRs is to abandon what the Idaho Falls paper calls the “$7 billion, 1,000 megawatt dinosaurs the country once viewed as the power producers of the future.” Instead, reactor units as small as 45 megawatts (in NuScale’s case) would be mass-produced in factories and then the modules would be connected into groups at electricity production sites. The underlying rationale is that the old economies of scale would be replaced by the economies of replication.

Nuclear proponents tout SMRs as the wave of the future, and the US government has already given $150 million to one reactor designer and is considering applications to give away $300 million more. Mind you, all those millions wouldn’t build an SMR, just get an SMR design through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process.

Since NuScale claims its SMR might end up in Idaho, it’s worthwhile to put some of its assertions into a broader context.

First, the new  “WIN.” NuScale describes “WIN” as a “broad, multi-western state collaboration.” Its announcement could lead one to conclude that the collaboration is the Western Governors Association (WGA). However, the agenda for the most recent WGA meeting did not include any nuclear power discussion. Though the governors of three states – Idaho, Oregon, and Arizona – were in fact quoted in the press release, it’s not at all certain that any of those states or any others have actually committed resources to “WIN.” The utilities involved are the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) and Energy Northwest. According to the American Nuclear Society’s Nuclear Café, UAMPS has characterized its involvement in “WIN” as “investigatory in nature only.” Energy Northwest (formerly known as Washington Public Power Supply System, or “whoops!”) is a utility consortium most famous for defaulting on $2.25 billion worth of nuclear construction bonds. It operates one reactor along the Columbia River, and its CEO has said, “If NuScale secures DOE funding, this effort will be an important step toward bringing new nuclear to Washington state.”

And what about Idaho? NuScale wants to “study the demonstration and deployment” of an SMR plant at a “site like the Idaho National Laboratory” (emphasis added). That’s where we are: NuScale is going after millions of taxpayer dollars, but not to actually build a nuclear reactor at INL. There won’t be money in an Idaho bank for an SMR ribbon cutting anytime soon, if ever.

That picture holds true nationally as well. Earlier this year, the senior SMR project manager for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) inadvertently illuminated the problem: You “have to have an assembly line cranking out repeatable parts.” That’s when the economies of replication appear. But who pays for the assembly line? TVA’s answer is that an “order backlog of a hundred SMRs” would mean US nuclear developers would “be able to go get the financing and build the building and have new stuff put in place to crank out these parts in a more automated manner.” Then “they are going to start delivering them [SMRs] in China and India, etc.” But who would place an order for a reactor whose “low” price tag (perhaps pushing a billion dollars) depends on an assembly line that won’t be built for years, if ever? And if the deliveries go to India or China, wouldn’t India or, even more likely, China build their own assembly lines?

A final word about NuScale’s Idaho buzz. The company says the “NuScale Power Module has achieved the Triple Crown for nuclear plant safety – to safely shut down and self-cool, indefinitely, with no operator action, no AC or DC power and no additional water.”

NuScale has indeed achieved the Triple Crown for nuclear plant safety and is quite likely to retain it. After all, its small modular reactor is not funded, not built, and not operating. Now that’s a safe reactor.

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