Are SMRs vaporware

It seems as if nuclear fans in Australia have given up on conventional Generation III/III+ reactors such as the Westinghouse AP1000 and Areva EPR: unsurprising in view of the massive cost overruns and delays experienced in attempts to construct them.

They’ve also gone quiet on the prospect of more advanced “Generation IV” reactors. Again that’s unsurprising. Most of the leading research projects in this field have been abandoned or deferred past 2030, even for prototypes.

The great hope now is for Small Modular Reactors, which will, it is hoped, be assembled on site from parts built in factories. The idea is that the savings in construction will offset the loss of the scale economies inherent in having a larger reactor (arising ultimately from the fact that the volume of a sphere grows faster than its surface area).

Lots of SMR ideas have been proposed, but the only one with any serious prospect of entering commercial use is that proposed by NuScale, with funding from the US Department of Energy. NuScale has recently claimed that it should have its first reactor (consisting of 12 modules) in operation by 2027.

A couple of observations on this. First, when the project was funded back in 2014 the proposed start date was 2023. So, in the course of five years, the target time to completion has been reduced from nine years to eight. That suggests the 2027 target is pretty optimistic.

Second, NuScale isn’t actually going to build the factory that is the key selling point of the SMR idea. The press release says that the parts will be made by BWX, formerly Babcock and Wilcox (who abandoned their own SMR proposal around the time NuScale got funded).

So, is BWX going to build a factory, or is this going to be a bespoke job using existing plants (presumably much more expensive). I went to their website to find out. But far from getting a clear answer, I could find no mention at all of a deal with NuScale, or of any recent activity around SMRs.

So, there you have it. Australia’s proposed nuclear strategy rests on a non-existent plant to be manufactured by a company that apparently knows nothing about it.

34 thoughts on “Are SMRs vaporware

  1. The Russians have small floating nuclear options. Since they are floating you can float them away if they are causing too much problem. That could be a good way to dip our toe in the water. And a bit of a reminder to our American friends that if they don’t stop acting like lunatics they cannot expect total obedience.

    Even if it takes 100 years, we should try and get this nuclear right. Because otherwise we will squander our coal resources. I back the left right now in their attempting to reduce coal exports. I think for now the strategy should be to price our coal exports out of the export market to some degree with high royalties. Give retained earnings tax relief to the coal companies in return so they can keep their producer goods in good standing even as they slow their production.

    In the 2030’s everyone will be in dire straights and maybe we could ease up at that stage for neighbourly, diplomatic and humanitarian reasons. But for now I like the idea of being misers with our coal exports. So for now I have common cause with CO2-warming believers.

  2. It’s been ~70 years already, how much more time do you need to prove that nuclear power is good in theory but poor in practice?

    The underlying technology ie boiling water in a giant kettle, is just a tad olde worlde don’t you think? Most people have moved on from the age of steam.

  3. Its an empirical fact that its usually been poor in practice. But when have they taken the sort of approach I advocate and when has that approach been shown to be unsuccessful? Its also an empirical fact that making bankers or people loyal to bankers part of the decision-making process is a loser. But since we only seldom manage to exclude all these monkeys its a problem with the data. We have limited data when it comes to making bankers and other repeat offenders to leave the room.

    People figure out that given enough time almost any positive interest rate will ruin almost any possible project. But its as if we keep on going back to JR Ewing for more abuse. When it comes to some things everyone becomes like Cliff Barnes.

    The phase change of water is a wondrous thing. Don’t knock it. The most powerful confirmed force we know of in fact. I think its power comes down to proton-repulsion which I consider the most powerful force there is.

  4. If we can build enough level train-lines and tunnels we should bring steam back. Because now with modern insulation materials we could run really efficient and pollution-free steam trains on waste wood and any organic waste.

    Starting off a permaculture farm you might begin with 70% of your trees as support trees. Most of them nitrogen fixers. The thing is later that you keep having to cut them back to stop them stifling your cash crops. The permaculture guys call this “chop and drop”. And its a soil building strategy. But once you have 12 feet of dark rich soil you are going to reach diminishing returns. So at that point the chopped support tree matter could be sent to the closest canal or flat rail-line, after the goats have had their way with them. You could have an whole continent running on this stuff if you had enough canals and perfectly flat rail.

    I love steam. I want to bring it all back. But we are in a better position if we can hold a lot of our coal in reserve. Jay Leno shows us the way forward here. He has improved on the best steam cars with modern insulation materials. You see an whole new Jay Leno here:

  5. Graeme is an entertaining lunatic, and a post on the nuclear fantasy is the right place for him, but I am getting bored. Perhaps a limit of two comments per thread?

  6. Dude. You still believe that CO2-warming fraud. You are in no position to be calling people lunatics. What other ideas does your gullibility encompass? Gravity is space bending?

  7. You would have to be the most gullible person on this site Wimberley. Because you keep on spouting the pronouncements of a rent-seeking industry as though it were holy writ. I’m not pretending to be the expert here, in terms of the solar industry. But its a bit scary to see grown men so gullible as to accept this stuff without caution. You may have to come to the conclusion that you really aren’t that bright.

  8. What is this? A confederacy of dunces? What are you disputing here? I already admitted that so far nuclear is empirically a bad deal. We ought to be using nuclear and other issues as the driving force to getting a lot of things right. I mean any set of political arrangements that can screw up optical fibre has some ways to go before they ought to be rejecting ideas for comprehensive reform. We still have to denude Telstra of its gear that is designed to be in public hands. There is a lot of work to do here. The problem with you and Wimberley is that you are both basically tribal, like the guys at Catallaxy. You figure all you have to do is work out what side you ought to be on and thats about all the mental effort you can muster. Pro-nuclear, anti-nuclear, pro-solar anti-solar. Birds law of energy economics says that energy sources are more complements than competitors. You might need to start reading. Like books and things. Because getting beyond mere tribalism and becoming a “Western Man” …. It looks like you natives have a lot of work ahead of you.

  9. Small Modular Reactors are more expensive than normal ones. The reason why reactors grew so large was to bring the cost down per kilowatt of power. SMRs increase the cost per kilowatt. Their sales pitch is, “While the price of our SMRs is far too high to make sense, they should be less subject to massive cost overruns that would make their price ridiculously too expensive to make sense.” That is not a good sales pitch.

  10. Saxa won’t do. Iodine supplement stockpile?

    Russia explosion: Five confirmed dead in rocket blast
    “The company told Russian media that its engineering and technical team had been working on the “isotope power source” for the propulsion system.”

    “The administration has now deleted its statement online about the spike. The BBC asked officials there why, and they said “because this incident comes under the authority of the defence ministry”.

    “The defence ministry insisted that “there have been no harmful chemicals released into the atmosphere, the radiation levels are normal”.

    Low-level radiation spike
    “It also said medics who evacuated the injured at Nyonoksa wore chemical and nuclear protection suits.

    “There was a rush on iodine stocks during the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, which sent a huge plume of radiation across Europe.”

    Nuclear-concerned Norway wants to give iodine tablets to citizens

    “For the tablet to have any effect, it must be taken within hours of any exposure to radioactive iodine.

    “43 crates containing a total of three million iodine tablets are already being stored at a depot in Oslo as one of Norway’s nuclear contingency precautions.

    “These tablets could be distributed to municipalities in the relevant areas.

    “Nuclear submarines are not the only reason for the Norwegian authorities’ increased concern over radioactive accidents.

    “Aging nuclear power plants across Europe as well as increasing tensions between Russia and the West also concern Norwegian authorities, writes NRK.”

    “Use of potassium iodide for thyroid protection during nuclear or radiological emergencies

    “In this situation, potassium iodide is used to protect, or block, the thyroid from irradiation. Commonly known as thyroid blocking, taking potassium iodide (KI)1 before or at the beginning of exposure to radioactive iodine blocks the uptake of radioactive iodine by the thyroid gland, thus reducing exposure of the thyroid to internal radiation.”

    When to take KI
    “KI tablets should be taken by individuals only when explicitly instructed to do so by public health authorities. Nuclear emergency preparedness usually includes plans to ensure that KI tablets are readily accessible (e.g. pre-distribution to strategic sites2).”

  11. Rustware is such an unpleasant word, James! I prefer the term nuclearpunk. It’s similar to the term steampunk — a dream of a past that never was rolled in with a future that never will be.

  12. 35 minutes into Sorensons 2011 presentation at Google he tells us the main problem with Thorium molten salt: Molten salts are corrosive. So we need to figure out the materials science to contain them. That looks like the main rate-determining step here. I propose a compromise.

    It turns out that molten salt expertise and experience is desperately needed in renewables. The liquid metal batteries are comprised of two different liquid metals separated by a molten salt. Also another battery idea is simply to heat up (and make molten) a salt off-peak, so you can produce super-heated steam to turn a standard turbine during peak-times. This is energy storage capacity that needs no high dam availability like hydro. So it might be that very modest funding could be approved, to get some of our CSIRO types really at home with the quirks of molten salts, and that which is used to contain them. The theoretical side isn’t the thing, we need people with that experience.

    What is really scary about traditional nuclear is the idea of having high temperature water under pressure. Any such system is asking for trouble since water phase change, once it starts, is an unstoppable force. Higher heat but normal pressure reactions ought not be seen as comparable as to the hazard levels. And higher heat is useful for stacking functions. You can have the same atmospheric pressure reactions doing a number of things at once.

    For example you can throw all your organic waste into some sort of insulated vat, heat it up without oxygen, occasionally pump hydrogen in there, and you wind up with all kinds of useful hydrocarbons. No more landfill necessary. Renewable rather than fossil hydrocarbons.

    Get the CSIRO up to speed on molten salts is good way of putting things off for a day when we are not so stupid as to subcontract software or security out to the Chinese or the Israelis. Not that there is anything wrong with our Chinese brothers, but sometimes you’ve got to put prudence ahead of political correctness.

    “….term steampunk — a dream of a past that never was rolled in with a future that never will be.”

    Surely you jest. Steam is part of 80-90% of all the energy we produce? Steam is awesome. If steam has no future its only because we are doing things wrong.

  13. Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fantasy. It has produced some impressive works of visual art such as Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy. Nuclearpunk is similar, although instead of being based in Victorian style ideas of a steam powered future it is based on 1950s optimism about nuclear energy. The best known example of Nuclearpunk is probably the Fallout series of computer games.

  14. Atomic Heart is another nuclear punk computer game I’ve just been made aware of today, but this one is set in the Soviet Union rather than the US. I won’t include a link because of very strong horror themes, but if you are the sort of sicko who enjoys watching someone getting beaten to death by an animatronic kung-fu Lenin, then go ahead and search for it.

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