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  • Writer's pictureTom Mast

Small Modular Reactors: Carbon-Free, Non-Intermittent Electrical Energy

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

Tom Mast, Solve American Gridlock

Reference: Next Nuclear Projects Get a Kickstart, Jennifer Hiller, WSJ 9-2-22

The infrastructure bill from last year provided $3.2 billion for demonstration reactors; this seems a trivial amount for a source of carbon-free electrical energy, a source to be used as backup for the intermittent sources wind and solar and also as stand-alone plants. This year’s large bill included $369 billion for climate related matters, but it isn’t clear yet what portion of that might flow to innovative new types of reactors, particularly Small Modular Reactors (SMR). There is a provision in the recent bill for tax credits for wind, solar, and presumably nuclear if they are placed near former coal-fired plants, taking advantage of the existing distribution structure. #SMR

The WSJ article points out that the economics of advanced reactors is unproven. Perhaps, but the technology isn’t really complicated. It also points out that the only large nuclear plant now under construction in the U.S. is one in Georgia that is more than five years behind schedule and over budget by billions of dollars; we should ask ourselves whether large or small reactors have the better economic risk. The real question is whether we are willing to take some risk on an energy source that excels in having the characteristics needed in the fight against GHG emissions, or whether we will continue to place bets on various technologies with much less potential to get on track to real reductions in global warming gas emissions. #climatechange

SMRs have been under development for many years and first units are being built in Russia and China now. SMRs are much smaller than the huge nuclear power plants common in the U.S. and elsewhere that have a history of very large cost and schedule overruns. SMR components can be built in factories, fostering manufacture under controlled conditions for much better quality, lower costs, and on-time completion. Plants in the field can then be assembled using from one-to-twelve modules for a wide variety of plant sizes to fit the electrical demand at that site.

It is true that the SMR concept is just now reaching the development stage and that there are not operating plants quite yet in the U.S. to prove satisfactory costs, schedules, and quality. But, this is not adequate reason to give short shrift to moving forward aggressively with just about the only carbon-free source of generating electrical energy with great potential to be used widely, the one that is not intermittent. SMR technology is based on fission reactions used in all existing nuclear plants. Small reactors have been used in ships for years. The risks are all very manageable. See the table below.

At lunch today, a friend told me that in 1941 Chrysler began work only one week after Pearl Harbor on a huge plant to manufacture engines for a new bomber, the B-29. Key people knew that the longer-lead-time activities must be started first. We must use well-known project management techniques in the war against greenhouse-gas emissions if we are to get control in an acceptable time frame!


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