WASHINGTON (September 26, 2013)—Nuclear power proponents pinning their hopes on small modular nuclear reactors to resurrect the industry’s fortunes will likely be disappointed, according to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The report, Small Isn’t Always Beautiful, concludes it will be extremely difficult for small reactors—which are less than a third the size of a standard 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor—to generate less expensive electricity and, at the same time, be safer than their larger cousins.
“Nuclear safety and security don’t come cheap,” said UCS Senior Scientist Edwin Lyman, the author of the report. “A utility that thinks it can have its own little nuclear reactor at a bargain-basement price may get exactly what it pays for: a plant more vulnerable to serious accidents and terrorist attacks.”
When the U.S. nuclear “renaissance” sputtered due to high construction costs, low natural gas prices and the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the nuclear industry began to tout small reactors as way to find new customers, such as utilities that cannot afford a large reactor’s $8-billion price tag or countries where electric grids cannot accommodate a large reactor’s output. The federal government, too, has gingerly jumped on the small reactor bandwagon. The Department of Energy (DOE) is now offering $452 million in matching grants to subsidize design and licensing costs. The agency foresees deployment of a commercial small reactor by 2020.
But do small reactors make economic sense? As Lyman’s report points out, utilities started building larger reactors in the first place because they produce electricity at a much lower cost than smaller ones due to the principle of economies of scale. So even if small modular reactors were cheaper to build than a large reactor on a per-unit basis, they would be less cost-competitive on a per-kilowatt basis, putting enormous pressure on reactor vendors to slash the costs of construction and operation to make small reactors cost-effective.
In an attempt to reduce capital costs, small reactor vendors are cutting corners on important reactor safety features, such as containment structures, which reduce radiation releases in the event of an accident. To cut operating costs, vendors also are pressuring the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to weaken requirements for emergency planning, control room staffing, and security force staffing. And to make matters worse, the NRC’s discussions with vendors on their designs and safety analyses are occurring largely in secret to allegedly protect proprietary information.
“Some small modular reactor concepts may have desirable safety characteristics,” said Lyman, “but if they are not carefully designed, licensed, deployed and inspected, they could pose comparable or even greater safety, security and proliferation risks than large reactors. Meanwhile the vendors are hiding their design details and asking the public to trust them.”
Small reactor aficionados argue that mass-producing the reactors on an assembly line instead of building customized reactors on site would cut costs. Lyman says that this is an unproven proposition and warns that any benefits of manufacturing reactors on a production line could be undercut by generic defects that would spread throughout the entire reactor fleet. Problems with modular construction already have delayed four new AP1000 reactors in Georgia and South Carolina.
“It will take many years of manufacturing experience before the industry will be able to confirm that small reactors can be built as cheaply as they say,” said Lyman. “And that means that it will take massive taxpayer subsidies to get this industry off the ground.”
The challenge for small reactor manufacturers will be to figure out how to reduce costs without sacrificing safety and security, the report concludes. It calls on the DOE and the nuclear industry to collaborate on developing nuclear plant designs that would be truly safer than the current generation, and on Congress to ensure the DOE—which has traditionally been an unapologetic nuclear power cheerleader—to spend taxpayer money only on designs that are safer and more secure than currently operating reactors.
“In the aftermath of Fukushima, the Energy Department and the industry should not be promoting the false idea that small reactors are so safe they don’t need 10-mile emergency planning zones,” said Lyman. “Nor should they be encouraging the NRC to weaken its other safeguards just to facilitate small reactor licensing and development. That would be a recipe for disaster.”