Small Nuclear Reactor Contract Fails, Signaling Larger Issues with Nuclear Energy Development in U.S.

Statement by Dr. Edwin Lyman, Director of Nuclear Power Safety, Union of Concerned Scientists

Published Nov 9, 2023

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NuScale Power Cooperation, the first company in the United States to secure approval for the design of a small modular nuclear reactor (SMR), ended its contract with the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) on Wednesday. The companies cited rising costs as the reason for terminating the contract.

Throughout the development process, NuScale made several ill-advised design choices in an attempt to control the cost of its reactor, but which raised numerous safety concerns. The design lacked leak-tight containment structures and highly reliable backup safety systems. It also only had one control room for 12 reactor units despite the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) typically requiring no more than two units per control room. Additionally, the company led efforts to sidestep critical safety regulations, including requirements for offsite emergency response plans to protect nearby communities. But NuScale’s justification for all this regulatory corner-cutting—that the design is “passively safe”—was undermined when concerns about its passive emergency core cooling system arose late in the design certification process.

The end of the project reflects the fragility of the advanced nuclear power industry in the U.S., which has been driven by an oversupply of reactor developers and a lack of genuine demand. As new reactor developers look for utilities and other end users to buy their products, the high cost and risks of their experimental, untested technologies are proving too onerous.

Below is a statement by Dr. Edwin Lyman, the director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

“The termination of NuScale's contract signals the broader challenges of developing nuclear energy in the United States. Placing excessive reliance on untested technologies without adequate consideration of economic viability, practicality, and safety concerns is irresponsible and clearly won’t work. The failure of this project underscores the need for decision makers to work diligently to ensure that the pursuit of nuclear energy aligns with the imperatives of public safety and financial feasibility.

“For all its problems, NuScale is one of the designs with the best prospects for commercialization because of its similarity to conventional light-water reactors, which allowed the company to learn from extensive operating experience and to leverage much of the existing nuclear power supply chain. Thus, the failure of the NuScale project with UAMPS does not bode well for the dozens of other, more exotic reactor types in various stages of development that are being touted as the next best thing in nuclear power, such as sodium-cooled fast reactors, gas-cooled reactors and molten-salt reactors. These reactors, which are based on much less mature designs and generally require fuels and materials that are not readily available, will be even riskier bets than NuScale for the foreseeable future. There are currently no other new nuclear power reactor designs under NRC licensing review.

“As private interests continue to turn their attention to emerging nuclear energy technology, lessons from this project should be held top of mind.”