Info item on modular nuclear reactors

Since lots of readers are interested, or, perhaps, a few are very interested, I thought I would mention that the US Department of Energy is beginning an effort to promote the development of modular nuclear reactors in the US. The plan is to choose two designs, with the object of having them in production by 2022. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that one of them will be the Westinghouse SMR, a cut down version of the Westinghouse AP1000 which is the only serious contender remaining as far as conventional reactors are concerned. That leaves one spot for another contender, call it SMRX.

I therefore need to revisit my previous conclusion on SMRs, namely, that none of them except the Westinghouse have any prospect of being in operation before 2020. First, I think it’s pretty clear that the designs that don’t make the DOE cut are finished – in a generally dire funding environment, who is going to back a horse that has already placed third or worse. Second, the DOE 2022 date is an aspirational target that is virtually certain to be missed, at least by SMRX. But, if things go well, 2025 is a possibility. So, by then we might have one conventional design and two SMRs in production on a serious scale.

29 thoughts on “Info item on modular nuclear reactors

  1. Yes I think build times of a decade for large units like the AP1000 will be unacceptable. When the decision is made to go nuke the punters will want something up and running within a year or two. However SMRs will be more expensive in capital terms, say $6 a watt (ie $3bn for a 500 MW multi module installation) and require a high skilled labour force. They will be delivered by ship from the US then onsite via police protected low loaders. The fuelling cycle of say 2 years means the operator is locked in to a particular supplier. On the other hand a cluster of small reactors may allow both continuous operation and highly variable output as units are switched off in rotation.

    I strongly suspect we will have hit the panic button by 2020. All fossil fuels coal, oil, natgas, CSG and tar sands will be expensive. I expect evidence of climate change to be so obvious only certified loonies could deny it. However since those loonies tend to be politically conservative they will probably approve small nukes for Australia. Logically the follow on step is to enrich our own uranium and/or get 4th generation machines to eat the waste of the early models.

  2. Just out of curiosity PrQ — are you going to open the “The Steep Path to a Nuclear Future ” topic soon? IIRC last time I looked you were going to leave comments closed “until tomorrow” (some days ago) but at this stage, you haven’t done it.

  3. I don’t see how breaking the reactors up into smaller units can reduce the costs pro rata as the risks still exist. The Fukushima plant was comprised of smaller reactors which then were involved in a chain reaction. The concept that nuclear power will be too cheap to metre is just as invalid.

  4. A few questions:-

    Doesn’t this presume that the US is the only player in town and isn’t that a dated notion?

    Isn’t a key bottleneck for conventional reactors the limited number of steel works that can forge the thick wallwd reactor vessels needed due to the high operating pressure?

    Why the presumption that private investment won’t make the leap? Bill Gates is active in nuclear research with TerraPower and is jointly working with the Chinese. Flibe Energy is looking to use private funds to have a LFTR prototype go critical within four years. Some of this entails fundamental research but LFTRs are a technically proven technology, the hard work having been done long ago with public money.

  5. On the technical side of things the Westinghouse SMR still seems to be based on pressurised steam which seems far less desirable than the LFTR system which is based on unpresurised molten salt.

  6. Westinghouse say their 200 MWe SMR will be available by 2020 and NuScale by 2018 in clusters of 1-12 modules of 45 MWe, both approved by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It seems highly unlikely Australia would buy SMR models proposed by China, Russia, India or Argentina. Maybe a French model if the Brits approved it. It’s an Anglo thing I suspect. To my knowledge no off-the-shelf LFTR style thorium reactor has a probable release date.

    Other issues with non-thorium SMRs are average length of time between refuels and the weight of the heaviest prefab component to go on the back of a truck. I think 2-5 years and 50-100 tonnes could be indicative figures.

  7. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that one of them will be the Westinghouse SMR

    I don’t think that’s the case at all. Both the NuScale ex-MASLWR design and the B&W mPower are much further along in the development process according to the DOE. The NRC doesn’t have the W-SMR listed on its advanced reactor licensing page, either. Westinghouse has the not-inconsiderable advantage of current experience, but the W-SMR document trail looks much thinner.

  8. You can say that Nuclear Power is affordable when an aluminium company is prepared to fully fund a dedicated nuclear reactor to power its smelter, rather than expect a government to cover the cost and provide all of the guarantees.

    I think that the only chance there is for a Nuclear Power Plant in Australia is if Tony Abbott, Nick Minchin and Peter Reith were propelled towards one another at light speed the collision might cause a stupidity fusion reaction with sufficient surplus political energy to overcome all rational thought long enough for an AP1000 to be ordered. But apart from that tetering possibility I think that Solar Energy has sufficient proven credibility, now, to provide an appropriate level of caution against such a move.

    Or, Alcoa might order one.

  9. When will an aluminium smelter be ordering a solar power plant rather than expecting governments to fund them?

  10. When will the average householders be putting Nuclear Reactors on their rooves, or in their backyards? Terje?

  11. You can say that Nuclear Power is affordable when an aluminium company is prepared to fully fund a dedicated nuclear reactor to power its smelter, rather than expect a government to cover the cost and provide all of the guarantees.

    Hah! I admire your optimism. Rent-seeking is the national sport for businesses in Aus.

    But you still should properly answer Terje @10 if you’re serious.

  12. costly,insecure,dangerous.


    a really good way to increase no go areas that can be claimed and relabelled by any religion as “divinely inspired and taboo ”

    you wandered in and now you are sick?—-gods will.

    the we-can’t-afford-anything-else-because-all-that-new-stuff-is-unproven,is,aside from being a running scared(of lost influence and profit)litany,trying to obliterate the nasty reality that the wanna-be radio active public energy try on has been shown,in the last half century,to be,

    costly,insecure and dangerous.

    “too cheap to meter.”

  13. Well, Wilful, there were some references to aluminium smelters being associated with solar farms in my first look, but could not find them in a second. Of course Terje has point, albeit a small one.

    My point is though that because aluminium smelter energy requirements routinely come up as being a primary reason against Solar Energy’s suitability for grid feed, always citing Nuclear as being so phenominally cheap, a Nuclear Power Plant should be a logical inclusive component in the building of an aluminium smelter package deal.

    Not been done anywhere. Only talked about in Russia.

    The fact is that Nuclear is too complicated, too riskey, with ever present catastrophy too closely linked to accrued human failings in many fields and further compounded with serendipitous mechanical issues.

  14. Aluminium is obviously far too cheap if we can waste it on fizzy drink cans. I have made the point frivolously but it is a serious point. If resources and production can be wasted on trivial, non-necessities like sweet fizzy drinks or flagrantly wasteful and destructive items like jet fighter aircraft then said production is obviously artificially “inexpensive” due to the distorting subsidies for all the wrong things is this so-called “free market” economy.

  15. Nuclear is not too dangerous. It has an increadibly good safety record in terms of fatalities per GWh when compared to Wind or Coal. Even a major meltdown and a series of explosions due to hydrogen build up at Fukishima didn’t kill anybody. However nuclear is too expensive relative to fossil fuels. Whilst there is scope for making nuclear even safer the point of innovation and modular production is all about reducing the cost. As such the cost of nuclear isn’t a rationalisation for dismissing innovation or modular designs. It’s the motivator.

  16. @TerjeP

    You always get weak motivated arguments like that.

    If one thief steals $1 every day for a year 365 times – is this an incredibly good crime record in terms of “dollars per theft” – compared to a once only robbery of $365?

    Go figure.

  17. @TerjeP


    Next question, if a wind-turbine kills 5 workers in 5 years and none thereafter, is this better than a nuke that kills 0 workers in 5 years but 3 in 10 and 1 per decade for the next 10,000 years?

  18. The point Chris was making, Terje, was that the nuclear industry achieves, arguably, the equivalent of one meltdown a year globally in the form of accumulated contaminating leaks, spills and failures from the world’s current 436 reactors.

  19. Here’s how to make nuclear power economic — sell the catastrophes to the taxpayers!

    The plan calls for the government to buy a voting stake of more than 50% in Tepco, in exchange for ¥1 trillion in capital, according to people familiar with the plan. Tepco’s board would be halved in size from the current 16 members, with the majority of seats going for the first time to external directors, the people said. In return for ceding control, Tepco has received government backing for its plan to raise electricity rates this year and restart idled reactors as early as next year, the people said. Banks, meanwhile, have agreed to roll over Tepco’s loans and extend around ¥1 trillion in new credit to Tepco, people familiar with the plan said.

  20. Too big to fail, eh, Rog?

    Tepco could be liquidated, you know. I wonder what several slightly used reactors would bring at a Sheriff’s auction.

  21. Chris – I made reference to fatalities per GWh. I’m referencing a unit of meausre that is already normalised for a fair comparison. The unit of measure includes both a power and a time dimension. And the data for the nuclear industry is based on thousands of reactor years of real world experience. As such I simple don’t see the point of your comment.

  22. TerjeP
    May 2nd, 2012 at 12:43 | #17
    Reply | Quote

    Nuclear is not too dangerous. It has an increadibly good safety record in terms of fatalities per GWh when compared to Wind or Coal.

    What a load of codswallop.

    city abandoned

    city abandoned

  23. I suppose engineering publications are a litte more honest; received in emaill from IEEE

    Japan’s Last Nuclear Reactor to Go Off-line

    In the wake of last year’s massive 11 March earthquake and tsunami that damaged four reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, the Japanese government took the dramatic step of taking most of the nation’s other reactors out of service over safety concerns. Now Japan’s last operating nuclear reactor, Hokkaido Electric Power Co.’s No. 3 unit, at its Tomari plant in northern Japan, will shut down for a scheduled inspection on 5 May. This will leave Japan without any nuclear-generated power, something that hasn’t happened since the nation’s first commercial plant went on line in 1966.

    I suppose in the end it comes down to how big a risk your willing to take, and after you have paid the piper, if your willing to go another round.

  24. Yes ABC news reports;

    “Japan has switched off its last functioning nuclear reactor, leaving the country without atomic power for the first time in four decades.”

    This is the death-knell of fission nuclear power. It is;

    (1) Too dangerous.
    (2) Too expensive.
    (3) Poor on energy return when all inputs, accidents, cleanups and de-commissionings are counted.
    (4) Too reliant on subsidies and indemnities.
    (5) Still based on a non-renewable fuel (uranium) that has already peaked in production due to limited mineable (economic and EROEI positive) deposits world wide.
    (6) Only supported by hopeful anti-realists who have no idea how to assess or quantify the issues empirically.

  25. Some technology implementations are disastrous dead ends. Here are two; the zeppelin and nuclear power.

    [video src="" /]

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