Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

Small Modular Reactors, NuScale, and the Dangers in Nuclear Power

Nuclear energy dates back to 1945, when the U.S dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The same chemical reactions that killed hundreds of thousands of people were used to develop nuclear reactors to produce domestic electricity starting in 1951. Nuclear disasters at plants in Chernobyl and Fukushima raised concerns around safety regulations and the risk of natural disasters. To gain the financial support of the nuclear industry and the U. S. Department of Energy, small modular reactors swooped in claiming that they’ll provide cheap, clean, and safe energy to revitalize and support nuclear investments. In this post, we’ll be discussing what small modular reactors are, who is building them in the U.S., and why they are not “cheap, clean, and safe ways to produce energy.” 


What are Small Modular Reactors? 

Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are individual nuclear powered stations that work together to generate electricity to buildings and commercial operations. Instead of one big reactor at a power plant producing between 600-1135 Megawatts (MWe) of generated electricity, SMRs generate 300 MWe or less. SMRs are created by building multiple smaller reactors in factories, which can be shipped to sites of 6-12 modules. There they perform nuclear fission (splitting atoms to produce energy). Their goal is to provide electricity to cities cheaper, quicker, and safer. These claims have yet to be proven by any substantial data. In the U.S., the only SMR developer with a design approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is NuScale.” Source

What is NuScale?

NuScale Power is a small modular nuclear reactor development firm based in Portland, Oregon. While there’s a variety of designs for SMRs, NuScale based theirs off of the most popular nuclear reactor in the U.S.: Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs). NuScale planned to build the US’ first SMRs in Idaho with the power utility Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), but the project was canceled in November, 2023 due to the lack of subscription from utilities in the intermountain region Source. After ten years of theoretical development and continued increase in costs, twenty seven of the fifty subscribed cities (primarily located in Utah, but also cities in Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming) were shaken; the project’s timeline kept getting pushed back due to worries around structural integrity and it wasn’t certified as safe or reliable Source. As a result, not enough cities signed up to receive power, the project went over budget, and didn’t prove to create a timely solution for a “carbon-free energy future.” Source


Why SMRs are not a Healthy Investment


Produces Nuclear Waste

Small Modular Reactors produce more nuclear waste than larger power plants according to a Stanford study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), a peer-reviewed multidisciplinary scientific journal. After analyzing three SMR designs, “Relative to a larger reactor with a similar design and fuel cycle, neutron leakage will be enhanced in the SMR core” Source. This waste stays radioactive for hundreds to thousands of years. Without a system for disposing high-level waste or a location to safely store it in the earth, “radioactive waste is stored on-site in dry casks licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission” Source. This is ethically irresponsible and inconsiderate to future generations who will eventually have to deal with the radioactive waste. 

NOT Clean Energy 

Producing nuclear energy is incredibly unclean when you take into consideration all of the steps and processes in the cycle. It starts with uranium mining, then the ore is processed and enriched, transported for power production to the reactors themselves, and finally ends with radioactive waste. “Except for power production, CO2 emissions are created throughout the nuclear fuel cycle,” causing climate change by warming the planet. The process creates nuclear waste, the possibility of radioactive contamination during transport, potential for accidents, and end of life decommissioning (when the plant reaches the end of its capacity to produce energy so the site must be demolished and cleaned up). 

When you perform a Google search to define “clean energy,” you will see pages of information about renewable energy sources (such as wind and solar) that are non-polluting. In 2021, a house bill was passed in Oregon state to set clean energy targets, but their narrow definition of what is considered “non emitting electricity” turns nuclear power into “clean energy.” HB 2021 states that, “‘Non emitting electricity’ means electricity, including hydroelectricity, that is generated and may be stored in a manner that does not emit greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.” This language lets nuclear power fall into the clean energy category and allows them to compete for funding with renewable energy that’s clean, economical and available now. Source

They are NOT “Small” 

While NuScale prides itself on one module only producing 77 MW (megawatts, measuring the output of energy produced in a power plant), one facility can hold up to 12 modules, producing 924 MW. In comparison to a regular sized power plant like Trojan’s 1130 MW steam generator, SMRs aren’t that “small.” Source

Vulnerable to Natural Disasters 

While supporters of SMRs say that the smaller nature of the reactors deem it less susceptible to natural disasters, the proximity in which they are laid out could result in a chain reaction equal to what a regular sized generator would produce. Companies like NuScale claim that their Small Modular Reactor designs are working to withstand environmental disasters, but the scale of events such as earthquakes and flooding are hard to predict, leaving SMRs vulnerable to the increasing intensity of natural disasters and climate change. Additionally, “typical problems that occur with this technology are: graphite dust accumulation, water or oil intrusion, and fuel failures. These failures, coupled with human error, can lead to large scale disasters. Source

In Conclusion 

Overall, we need to invest our time and money in renewable energy such as wind and solar, and systems to store that energy. The government has already spent over a billion dollars on NuScale’s Small Modular Reactor project with UAMPS, an idea that was terminated before it ever got to the point of construction. It is time to adjust and admit investment in nuclear power is not economically profitable and will cost people more for their utilities. The fact that we can’t care about sustainable energy without capitalistic ideals is disappointing because the danger to the planet, its environment, and our own health should be our priority.