Small Modular Reactors I: There is no market for SMRs


Small is Beautiful

This is the title of the influential book published in 1973 by the economist E.F. Schumacher. He promoted appropriate technologies meaning technologies that can be applied locally on a small scale to address the important needs of the inhabitants in a sustainable manner. This philosophy applied to localized energy generation is often used as a justification for renewable energy sources. For example, homes, farms and even whole communities could be electrically self sufficient, generating their own electricity by solar panels and wind turbines in contrast to drawing from a large power grid and thus, supporting an “off-the-grid” life style.

The wide commercial availability of solar panels and wind turbines of all sizes at affordable prices make this possible. Granted some aspects of this life style may not be easy or convenient nevertheless a significant number of individuals in developed countries have achieved this for a variety of environmental, ideological and personal reasons.

In many developing countries, off-the-grid is not a choice but a fact of daily life. About 1.5 billion people in these areas have no access to grid electricity. Schumacher’s ideas of local power sourcing would appear have the best application in such less developed areas. The tendency is to use solar panels, wind turbines and biofuels in those places as appropriate technologies for power supply.

The SMR (Small Modular Reactor) applies Schumacher’s basic idea to nuclear energy field. The concept would be to have many smaller reactors in locations where they are needed rather than a few large nuclear stations together with other electrical power sources feeding a central electrical grid from which all locations draw their power.  This centralized model is typical of Ontario and most other jurisdictions in the industrialized world.

There are many species of SMRs being pushed by entrepreneurs and companies. These designs are claimed to have superior safety, to minimize nuclear waste, to have excellent economics, to have high sustainability, to resist proliferation, and overall to be much better than existing reactors.  Development of these SMR concepts to the point of commercial deployment looks like it will cost a few billion dollars for each.

According to a 2014 report by the United Nations, about 85% of the populations of Canada and the United States live in urban areas.  Using SMRs in these urban areas would appear iffy to say the least. Even the most enthusiastic SMR fans wouldn’t propose several small reactors scattered throughout an urban area in preference to a few large reactors outside the area generating power for a grid. The increasing urbanization of populations is precisely the reason for the present model of relatively few large generation stations supplying a grid is so prevalent in North America and Europe.

Most of the 15% of the North American population living outside large cities in agricultural areas are connected to a power grid of some sort. The only places on this continent where an SMR might be considered are remote communities in northern Canada and perhaps Alaska.  This has been tried in the past.

In the late 1970’s AECL (Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd) pushed tried to market the Slowpoke Energy System (SES), an outgrowth of its successful Slowpoke research reactor. The Slowpoke is designed so that any increase in the pool temperature decreases the fission reaction rate and so it is self regulating.  This high degree of inherent safety and relatively low power (20 kW) make unattended operation feasible. Most of the Slowpokes from the 1970’s continue to provide valuable service as research tools.

The SES, essentially a 10MWe Slowpoke-based SMR, proved to be a technical failure. A prototype at AECL’s Whiteshell lab was never completed and at the time of its development (around 1980) it was rumoured within the company to have many fundamental design problems. (In retrospect, that shouldn’t be surprising in view of AECL’s subsequent Maple reactor fiasco.) Be that as it may, it was heavily marketed among other applications as a heat source for Arctic communities.  Fortunately, there were no takers because there was no product to deliver.

The important lesson from the SES parable is this SMR proved impossible to sell or more accurately to give away to any community in the Canadian Arctic. Northerners would rather import thousands or indeed millions of barrels of diesel to generate electricity and provide heat.  They were strongly opposed to the idea mainly because they felt it to be inappropriate in Schumacher’s sense.  I doubt whether their  fear of nuclear technology has lessened in the intervening years since Chernobyl and Fukushima. One might to convince them by pointing out the climate change effects on the Arctic from burning fossil fuels but their fuel represents only a miniscule fraction of Canadian greenhouse gas emissions.   In my opinion, the only SMRs that will be seen in Canada’s Arctic in the foreseeable future are those on passing Russian icebreakers and US nuclear submarines.

In Canada, I suppose SMR proponents could try to breathe life into the moribund reactors-for-the- oil- sands pipe dream that has proven a perennial non-starter for many years and is even less likely to succeed now that the oil sands industry is in so much trouble.  Heat for industrial purposes could also be produced at industrial sites by SMRs but what manufacturer would want one? There don’t seem to be any other obvious markets for SMRs in Europe, Japan and other countries in the industrialized world.

The SES was only one of many failed attempts to sell SMRs over the past few decades.  In fact I can’t find any case of an SMR up and running in North America, excluding naval propulsion reactors.  I not aware of a practical SMR operating anywhere else in the world but I suppose there might be a few in Russia supplying remote military bases.

I haven’t heard that remote localities in Africa and other less developed regions are clamoring for SMRs.  For many obvious reasons of safety, security and maintenance off-the-grid nuclear reactors are an inappropriate technology in those places.  Present scenarios involve solar and to a lesser extent wind. If one is going to use nuclear power, it’s a much better to use larger reactors in a centralized model and expand the grid where necessary, as countries such as South Africa are doing.

I conclude there is no obvious market for SMRs, no matter how “beautiful” any particular type may be.

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