For SMRs, Neither Small Nor Modular Works

When it comes to nuclear power plants, in recent year much of the industry and the Department of Energy have embraced the idea that smaller plants, built with off-site, prefabricated parts that could be easily shipped to construction sites, and capable of being scaled up with multiple units is proving misguided on multiple fronts. We call them “SMR”’s for small, modular reactors. They also appear stillborn.

The latest evidence that undermines the reasoning for SMRs comes from the experience at Georgia Power’s Vogtle expansion and Scana’s V.C. Summer plant in South Carolina, where the Wall Street Journal reports that modular construction isn’t working on very big reactors. The savings from modular, off-site fabrication are an illusion; construction continues to fall behind schedule, driving up original cost estimates.

The WSJ’s veteran utility report Rebecca Smith writes, “Building nuclear reactors out of factory-produced modules was supposed to make their construction swifter and cheaper, leading to a new boom in nuclear energy. But two U.S. sites where nuclear reactors are under construction have been hit with costly delays that have shaken the faith in the new construction method and created problems concerning who will bear the added expense.”

Atlanta lawyer Robert Baker, former member of the Georgia Public Service Commission, told the business newspaper, “Modular construction has not worked out to be the solution that the utilities promised.” Georgia Power executive Joseph “Buzz” Miller said, “The promise of modular construction has yet to be seen.”

summer modular

Two big dogs of nuclear, Babcock & Wilcox and Westinghouse (vendor of the reactors at Vogtle and Summer), established with their ill-fated SMR nuclear development programs that small isn’t a virtue, when the costs/KW of capacity are no better, and sometimes worse, than conventional, 1,000-MW nukes. While B&W had a deal with the Tennessee Valley Authority (which has no effective outside regulatory scrutiny) to site the company’s proposed SMR, and DOE money to help finance it, the firm pulled the plug on its mPower project a year ago, citing the inability to line up additional investors.

Westinghouse euthanized its SMR program after it admitted publicly that it was unable to find any customers for the scaled-down, modularized machine. Only NuScale, a Fluor-backed project, remains standing, mostly because of the prospects of DOE money. Overall, DOE has had $450 million to put into SMRs over the years, with no concrete result to date.

There is a familiar pattern here. Going back, way back, to the 1960s and the beginning of the U.S. civilian nuclear power program, cockeyed optimism and unwarranted assumptions have driven utility and vendor managements and government regulators/financiers as they have looked at nuclear power plants. It started with General Electric’s 1963 bid to Jersey Central Power & Light to build a fixed-cost, turnkey plant at Oyster Creek. No one knows just how much GE lost on that deal, but estimates are at least $100 million.

Seldom has the industry blamed itself for its travails (except for the late, legendary Bill Lee of Duke Energy), preferring to point fingers at anti-nuke protests and nuclear regulators. But from the beginning, irrational estimates, cost overruns, missed schedules, poorly operated plants have undercut the industry’s glowing pictures of what a nuclear future will look like.

Those proclivities continue. An August 17 letter from the House energy and Commerce Committee to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cites reports from the Congressional watchdog Government Accountability Office and the NRC’s inspector general criticizing the agency’s cost-benefit analyses. The IG said, “The agency may be vulnerable to errors, delays, wasted effort, and flawed decision-making because of the limited experience of its cost estimators.”

SMRs? Small didn’t work. Modular isn’t working. Nuclear power seems scalable in only one direction: bigger, and that means more expensive.

Politics isn’t working, as the nuclear industry pushes the self-serving notion that it is the only solution to global warming. So far that solution, at least in this country with our reliance on the private sector, doesn’t look affordable.