Small Modular Reactors II: No Product to Sell

The Road not Taken

Even if you had the necessary funds, you couldn’t buy an SMR simply because there isn’t one developed for commercial deployment. This is not surprising because as argued in the previous post there is no significant market for SMRs. Developing a product for which there is no market only succeeds if you can create a market for something consumers didn’t know they needed (for example home computers, cell phones and many other devices). However, SMRs are not consumer products and we have to look elsewhere for motivation.

In my opinion the push for SMRs arises from many factors the most important being that there is little going on in conventional nuclear activities. The nuclear industry is in decline in most places in the world.   China, India, Russia and a few countries with new nuclear programs are the only places building reactors.

The tag line on this post is the title of a poem by the American poet Robert Frost about a walker in a wood who has to choose a path to take. The last lines are:

Two roads diverged in a wood,

and I—I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Proponents of SMRs in essence say the “road not taken” is the source of nuclear power’s current decline. They claim that the wrong choices were made early in the commercial development of nuclear power and it was these mistakes that ultimately caused today’s decline. They want to reboot the nuclear industry by reverting to earlier reactor concepts especially the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960’s subsequently dropped in favour of the light water reactors that now make up the bulk of today’s reactors.

MSRs are touted to offer advantages in safety, economic s and reduced waste production. In terms of safety it is claimed that there are inherent safety features in the MSR concept – in my opinion there isn’t enough operating experience to prove this claim. Since SMRs would have powers in the order of a few 100 MWe, another argument is that these smaller reactors than would result in smaller accidents than the typical 1,000 MWe water reactor. This might resonate better with the public than the inherently safe claim since there are few if any believers in absolute nuclear safety since Fukushima.

Building 10 SMRs of 100MWe in place of a single 1000 MWe reactor clearly flies in the face of economy-of-scale which proponents admit. Some propose building reactor factories to turn out cookie-cutter SMRs that would avoid this disadvantage but I personally find this dubious. There is also a social economy-of-scale type problem namely that one would have to convince the public in 10 localities to obtain for each of the SMRs a social licence compared to the single one needed for the single large reactor. This would probably be much more difficult and thus, time consuming and costly. SMRs are unlikely to have any economic advantage.

In order for MSRs in particular to produce less nuclear fuel waste would require a fuel recycle with reprocessing probably at the reactor site. This could be very complicated and even, if achieved, a Deep Geological Depository would still be needed for long-lived isotopes that could not be totally consumed in the reactor. This possible advantage is unclear as is its non proliferation claim.

Notwithstanding the reality of SMRs, the presence of many colorful and successful entrepreneurs makes today’s SMR scene lively and interesting. I’ve noted a dozen or more novel nuclear schemes, some driven by business magnates such as Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. While I very much respect their business acumen, I’m not impressed by their nuclear expertise. Nevertheless, the motivation of people of that stature seems to be to altruistic i.e. to benefit the world by developing novel sources of cheap clean nuclear energy rather than to make even more money. On the crasser side there are some places that hype SMRs because they see manufacturing them as a local economic opportunity (“Podunk, SMR capital of the world”) and of course national nuclear labs who see SMR research as a source of contract research income even if they don’t  buy into the concept.

A further dimension to the SMR story is added by the vociferous and aggressive thorium lobby that sees a rebooted nuclear industry with reactors fueled by thorium instead of uranium. Once again various advantages are claimed from making this substitution. Who knows it might have been better to use thorium from the beginning of commercial nuclear power? However, today’s nuclear industry has too much momentum in investment, research, experience and expertise to ever radically change its direction. A nuclear industry reboot is not going to happen.

My feeling is the nuclear community should persist with evolutionary initiatives such as Generation IV, to improve reactor safety, lower cost and reduce nuclear waste rather than to cram nuclear generation into an inappropriate niche as part of a futile attempt to reboot the industry.

In terms of SMRs the road not taken should remain not taken.

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