Publications

- June 1, 2019: Vol. 6, Number 6

Smaller, cheaper, safer: New generation of reactors seek to regain public trust

by Mike Consol

There is hope that a new breed of safer, less expensive fission reactors will help the nuclear energy sector mount a long overdue comeback in the United States, as well as other parts of the world, where some countries have curtailed or even abandoned their nuclear energy programs. With any luck, sodium-cooled fission reactors and other technologies — including the ability to reuse spent fuel — will get the public to regain their trust in the safety and viability of nuclear generating stations.

Proponents of nukes point to, among other things, dismal statistics that show coal accounted for 38 percent of the world’s power in 2018, the same percentage as when the first global climate treaty was ratified 20 years ago. What’s more, greenhouse-gas emissions increased by 2.7 percent in 2018, the biggest rise in seven years. Meanwile, several zero-
emission U.S. nuclear plants were shuttered because the cost of their product cannot compete with shale gas.

NuScale Power is one of the companies creating excitement in the space, with plans to design and build small modular reactors, a reduced scale version of previous generating station, and they promise to be less expensive and safer than traditional fission reactors. NuScale reactors are designed as 60-megawatt reactors rather than standard 1,000-megawatt plants.

According to a report in Technology Review, published by MIT, NuScale has a deal to install 12 small reactors to supply energy to a coalition of 46 utilities across the western United States, but the project can go ahead only if the group’s members agree to finance it by the end of this year.

While NuScale’s approach takes traditional light-water-cooled nuclear reactors and shrinks them, China is building a large-scale sodium-
cooled reactor in Fujian province, which is scheduled to begin operation by 2023, and Bill Gates-backed TerraPower has been developing a sodium-cooled system that can be powered with spent fuel, depleted uranium, or uranium straight out of the ground.

Will any of these new technologies succeed? Technology Review reports that advanced fission reactors reduce nuclear waste — even using it as fuel — and drastically shrink the chance of tragedies like Fukushima or Chernobyl. Yet no such reactors have been licensed or deployed outside China or Russia.

The new designs are expected to reduce the fantastically expensive upfront costs of past reactors by creating designs that can be factory built in numbers, rather than each being custom made. That plan would cause prices to plunge, as was the case for wind and solar energy systems.

 

Mike Consol (m.consol@irei.com) is editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter @mikeconsol to read his latest postings.

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