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Small modular nuclear reactors

Too late, too expensive, too risky and too uncertain



Small modular reactors (SMRs) are the nuclear industry’s attempt to take advantage of the energy transition by providing less-expensive power sources that can be built faster than traditional nuclear reactors. The SMR concept involves building individual reactor components at a central site, then shipping them to different locations for final assembly.

Early results are not promising. Although four dozen companies have designed SMRs, only one design pushed by Oregon-based NuScale has been certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And that certification is for a reactor that NuScale no longer intends to build. Instead, the company is now marketing reactors with modules of 77 megawatts-electric (MWe)—not with the 50 MWe that the NRC certified.

Three years before the plant to start construction of the first SMR, the NuScale design already has run into cost issues, with the target price of its power climbing from $58 per megawatt-hour to $89 – even with a $1.4 billion Department of Energy grant and subsidies to cut costs by $30 per megawatt-hour. The estimated construction cost of the first NuScale SMR also has climbed from $5.3 billion to $9.3 billion because of higher interest rates and inflation. Other SMR designs currently being marketed can be expected to experience similar cost increases, as well.

The company expects to begin construction in 2026, with a fully operational reactor by 2030. The nuclear industry, however, has a long history of not meeting budgets or timetables. Two reactors under construction at the Vogtle Plant in Georgia, for example, were expected to cost $14.1 billion and be completed by 2017. The two have so far cost more than $34 billion and have not gone online yet.

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