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Small Modular and Advanced Nuclear Reactors: A Reality Check

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Nuclear power has been declining in importance over the last quarter century, with its share of global electrical energy generation decreasing from 17.5 percent in 1996 to around 10 percent in 2019. Small modular and advanced nuclear reactors have been proposed as potential ways of dealing with the problems— specifically economic competitiveness, risk of accidents, link to proliferation and production of waste— confronting nuclear power technology. This perspective article examines whether these new designs can indeed solve these problems, with a particular focus on the economic challenges. It briefly discusses the technical challenges confronting advanced reactor designs and the many decades it might take for these to be commercialized, if ever. The article explains why the higher construction and operational costs per unit of electricity generation capacity will make electricity from small modular reactors more expensive than electricity from large nuclear power plants, which are themselves not competitive in today’s electricity markets. Next, it examines the potential savings from learning and modular construction, and explains why the historical record suggests that these savings will be inadequate to compensate for the economic challenges resulting from the lower generation capacity. It then critically examines arguments offered by advocates of these technologies about job creation and other potential uses of energy generated from these plants to justify subsidizing and constructing these kinds of nuclear plants. It concludes with an assessment of the markets for these technologies, suggesting that these are inadequate to justify constructing the necessary manufacturing facilities.
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Date of publication xxxx 00, 0000, date of current version xxxx 00, 0000.
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Small Modular and Advanced Nuclear Reactors:
A Reality Check
M. V. Ramana1
1Liu Institute for Global Issues, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, V6T 1Z2, Canada
Corresponding author: M. V. Ramana (e-mail: m.v.ramana@ubc.ca).
ABSTRACT Nuclear power has been declining in importance over the last quarter century, with its share of
global electrical energy generation decreasing from 17.5 percent in 1996 to around 10 percent in 2019. Small
modular and advanced nuclear reactors have been proposed as potential ways of dealing with the problems
specifically economic competitiveness, risk of accidents, link to proliferation and production of waste
confronting nuclear power technology. This perspective article examines whether these new designs can
indeed solve these problems, with a particular focus on the economic challenges. It briefly discusses the
technical challenges confronting advanced reactor designs and the many decades it might take for these to be
commercialized, if ever. The article explains why the higher construction and operational costs per unit of
electricity generation capacity will make electricity from small modular reactors more expensive than
electricity from large nuclear power plants, which are themselves not competitive in today's electricity
markets. Next, it examines the potential savings from learning and modular construction, and explains why
the historical record suggests that these savings will be inadequate to compensate for the economic challenges
resulting from the lower generation capacity. It then critically examines arguments offered by advocates of
these technologies about job creation and other potential uses of energy generated from these plants to justify
subsidizing and constructing these kinds of nuclear plants. It concludes with an assessment of the markets for
these technologies, suggesting that these are inadequate to justify constructing the necessary manufacturing
facilities.
INDEX TERMS energy resources, fission reactors, nuclear power generation, power system economics,
small modular reactors, advanced reactors
I.
INTRODUCTION
Countries around the world have expressed an interest in
developing or deploying Small Modular or Advanced Nuclear
Reactor designs. The International Atomic Energy Agency
records 72 designs in its biennial report on Small Modular
Reactors (SMRs) [1]. While there have been earlier efforts to
develop and market SMRs, these have not been successful
[2][4]. Promoters of SMRs make promises about how these
reactors are the future for nuclear power, solving many of the
problems that have held back the technology [5][9]. They
also assert that SMRs are uniquely suitable to evolving energy
markets, because of technical characteristics like load
following capabilities and their ability to produce high-
temperature heat.
This perspective article evaluates some of these claims, in
the backdrop of an important constraint: economic
competitiveness. It starts with a brief overview of the historical
evolution of nuclear power and the drivers for SMR
development. This is followed with discussions of the
economic challenges that confront SMRs, the designs that are
more likely to be built in the near to medium-term future. It
then examines a few of the other arguments made by
advocates of these technologies to obtain government support.
It concludes with some prognostic comments about markets
for these reactor designs.
II.
HISTORICAL AND ECONOMIC SCENARIO
Underlying the drive for SMRs and advanced nuclear reactors
is the decline in nuclear power over the last quarter century,
coming down from providing 17.5 percent of the global
electrical energy generated in 1996 to around 10 percent in
2019 [10], [11]. The main problem has been economics. As
the 2003 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study put it
baldly, “Today, nuclear power is not an economically
competitive choice” [12, p. 3]. The same study also identified
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VOLUME XX, 2021 3
the risk of accidents, the production of radioactive waste, and
the link to nuclear weapons production as problems.
This economic evaluation was made just as the global
nuclear energy market was said to be on the verge of what was
termed a nuclear renaissance [13][17], propelled in the
United States by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that offered
various guarantees and incentives to nuclear power [18].
That hoped-for renaissance fizzled out in a few years and
by 2012, John Rowe, former chairman and CEO of Exelon
Corporation, then the largest nuclear operator in the United
States, candidly admitted: “Let me state unequivocably that
I’ve never met a nuclear plant I didn’t like…Having said that,
let me also state unequivocably that new ones don’t make any
sense right now” [19]. The new ones that Rowe was talking
about were the Advanced Passive 1000 (AP1000) reactor
designs being built in the states of Georgia and South Carolina
in the United States.
Both of these vastly exceeded the initial cost estimates, with
the Vogtle project currently forecast to cost $29 billion
compared to $14 billion when construction started [20], [21].
When construction started, the utility in charge projected that
the first of the two reactors being built wouldcome online in
2016 and the second one in 2017” [20]. As of February 2021,
neither reactor has started operating.
The other nuclear project in South Carolina was abandoned
in 2017 after $9 billion were spent on it [22]. The failure
caused Westinghouse, the company directly or indirectly
responsible for the design of the majority of the world’s
nuclear reactors, to file for bankruptcy protection [23], [24].
This pattern of cost and time overruns was observed in other
countries as well. In France, the Flamanville 3 project is
“running a decade behind schedule” and “expected to cost
12.4 billion euros” [25] much higher than the 3.3 billion euros
forecast when construction started [26, p. 39]. The
construction cost of Russia’s Leningrad NPP-2 power plant
went up from an estimated 133 billion rubles to 244 billion
rubles (about 8 billion USD) [27, p. 171]. India’s
Koodankulam reactors were estimated in 2010 to cost Rs.
131.71 billion [28], but this went up to Rs. 224.62 billion ($3.5
billion) [29].
Some countries, most prominently China, have continued to
build nuclear plants. But construction in all countries has
slowed down substantially in comparison with earlier plans
and global projections for nuclear power capacity have
decreased. The ongoing nuclear construction should be
viewed as part of these countries adopting a strategy that
involves building out many different sources of power rather
than a focus on nuclear power, and in the context of much
larger installations of solar and wind energy [10].
It is in this context that one should view the argument that
if nuclear power needs to grow, it could only be on the basis
of a new generation or novel kinds of nuclear reactors. Small
modular reactors or advanced reactors are part of such hoped-
for solutions.
III.
SMALL MODULAR AND ADVANCED NUCLEAR
REACTORS
We start with a few clarifications about nomenclature. The
terms small”, modular”, and advanced reactors do not
refer to any specific design or designs and there is considerable
overlap between different categories. Note that almost all of
these are only conceptual designs and not operational or fully
complete designs. While SMR designs should possess the two
characteristics that are explicitly included in their name,
namely “small” and “modular” (defined later), the category of
advanced nuclear reactors is quite vague and in principle any
reactor design today can claim to be advanced. Indeed, many
of the nuclear reactors constructed in the world today have
been a result of programs from the 1980s and 1990s to develop
“advanced” designs, including advanced light water reactors
[30][33]. Further, many reactor designs can be considered an
advanced reactor or an SMR or both. For example, the Xe-100
high temperature reactor is listed as an SMR by the
International Atomic Energy Agency [1], but received $80
million in 2020 from the U.S. Department of Energy’s
Advanced Reactor Demonstration program.
During the early 2000s, there was an organized international
research effort to develop what were called Generation IV
nuclear energy systems, that were to provide significant
improvements in economics, safety, sustainability, and
proliferation resistance [34]. Generation IV reactors can be
small or large. Regardless of size, various characteristics of
Generaion IV reactors do apply to many SMR and advanced
nuclear reactor designs.
The most pertinent of these characteristics for our
discussion is their technological readiness, or lack thereof.
When this initiative was established in 2000 “with the aim of
fostering the research and development necessary to underpin
the development of a new generation of nuclear energy
systems”, the goal was “commercial deployment by 2020
2030” [35, p. 4323]. That deadline has slipped, and the 2018
update from the Generation IV forum concluded that
“readiness for commercial fleet deployment” has been pushed
back to “around 2045 (for the first systems)” [36].
This lengthening deadline is because these so-called
advanced reactor designs are incomplete, with major
technological challenges that need to be overcome before they
can be considered ready for deployment. In 2015, the French
Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire (IRSN)
examined these reactor designs and concluded that “the SFR
[Sodium‐cooled Fast Reactor] system [is] the only one of the
various nuclear systems considered by GIF [Generation IV
International Forum] to have reached a degree of maturity
compatible with the construction of a Generation IV reactor
prototype during the first half of the 21st century; such a
realization, however, requires the completion of studies and
technological developments mostly already identified” [37].
Note that the timeline of “first half of the 21st century” is
well beyond the kinds of timelines required for meeting the
more ambitious climate mitigation challenges laid out by the
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Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other
international and national agencies. Experience has shown that
SFRs, the one Generation IV design held out by IRSN as
relatively mature, are expensive, prone to accidents, and to
operational problems [38].
Now we turn to SMRs. As their name suggests, these are
designed to produce relatively small amounts of power
compared to the current nuclear reactor fleet, with small being
defined as less than 300 megawatts (MW) of electricity. The
term modular is used to refer, in part, to the idea that one
nuclear reactor with a large power output is replaced with
many reactors with smaller power output. The other sense in
which the term modular is used is to emphasize that, instead
of trying to build the whole nuclear plant on the site from
scratch, the reactor is assembled on site from various modules
that have been manufactured in factories.
The terms “small” and “modular are just two
characteristics of the design and there are a range of fuels,
moderators, and coolants that could be used in different kinds
of SMRs [1], [39]. Depending on design choices, the physical
size of these plants can be small or large, with little connection
to the generation capacity.
IV.
ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES OF REDUCED
OUTPUT
Small reactors, modular or not, are expected be more
expensive per unit of output because of something that
economists have known for decades and termed economies of
scale [40][42]. Larger reactors (or other power plants for that
matter) are cheaper on a per megawatt basis because their
capital and operating costs, which represent material and work
requirements, do not scale linearly with generation capacity.
This is reflected in a general rule of thumb followed in
industrial engineering which uses a power law to relate the
capital costs of production facilities with different capacities,
with an exponent that is usually chosen to be 0.6 [43, p. 421].
Other studies use different numbers for the exponent (e.g. 0.55
used in a study by the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories [44]) but
none of them expect that the exponent will be one. With an
exponent of 0.6, if there are two plants of size S1 and S2, the
ratio of their capital costs K1 and K2 is given by:
𝐾"𝐾#
$
=
&
𝑆"𝑆#
$ (
).+
.
This formula implies that, all else being equal, a SMR with
a power capacity of 200 MW would have a construction cost
of around 40 percent of the cost of constructing a 1000 MW
reactor, whereas it would generate only 20 percent of the
electricity. Thus, the 200 MW SMR has roughly twice the cost
per MW of capacity. Similarly, operating an SMR will also be
more expensive per MW of capacity in comparison with a
large reactor due to diseconomies of scale. Both of these
factors will result in a higher cost per unit of electricity
generated.
Small modular and advanced nuclear reactor designers
often argue against the application of such scaling laws
because, according to them, their designs are so different from
current reactors as to invalidate scaling. While that might have
some truth, and these power laws cannot be taken as exact
ways to calculate costs, the general principle about economic
losses due to smaller size will still hold.
Further, there are two corollaries that flow from this
argument about differences in designs. First, the lack of
experience with these designs means that estimates of cost and
construction time are much more uncertain, and will likely
suffer from the huge overruns that have been typical of “First
of a Kind” projects [45][47]. Second, new designs will mean
that the process of getting safety approvals ought to be more
demanding, at least in any well-designed and well-functioning
regulatory system, and thus more expensive. To give a sense
of scale of expenditures involved, the development of the
NuScale SMR design had cost $957 million till March 2020,
of which the U.S. government has contributed $314 million
[48]. It is expected that another $500 to $700 million will have
to be spent before the design receives the regulatory approval
for construction to commence [49], [50]. This total research
and development cost of roughly $1.5 billion is for a scaled
down, light water reactor design, the most prevalent nuclear
reactor design in the world.
Completely new designs envisioned by Advanced nuclear
reactor and some SMR developers should cost even more to
translate from conceptual design to one that is licensed to be
constructed. There is simply no appetite within the private
sector to underwrite such large risky investments. A good
illustration is Bill Gates who has spent billions on various
philanthropic efforts but still seeks government subsidies for
his nuclear venture [51][53].
V.
CAN LEARNING COMPENSATE?
Proponents of small modular reactors argue that they can make
up for the lost economies of scale by savings through mass and
modularized manufacture in factories and resultant learning
[54][60]. Learning in this context refers primarily to the
reduction of cost with increased construction. It is often
quantified through a learning rate, which is defined as the
percentage cost reduction associated with a doubling of units
produced [61].
The economic case for SMRs critically rests on fast
learning. What do we know about learning? Early in this
century, a study from the University of Chicago concluded
that “a reasonable range for future learning rates in the United
States nuclear industry is 3 to 10 percent” [61, pp. 424]. Even
the upper estimate is low compared to most other energy
technologies [62][64].
Further, for such rates of learning as expected for the
nuclear industry, the same SMR design will have to be
manufactured by the thousands, for the cost of electricity from
SMRs to break even with the corresponding cost of electricity
from large reactors [39]. There is unlikely to be a market for
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so many highly priced SMRs; these units will not even
competitive with large nuclear power plants, let alone other
sources of electricity. Expert assessments of projected costs of
SMRs bear out the prognosis that learning will not adequately
compensate for diseconomies of scale [72], [73].
Sustained learning would also require just one or two
standard reactor designs to be chosen for build-out in those
large quantities. However, as mentioned earlier, roughly six
dozen SMR designs are in various stages of development in
multiple countries [1]. It is very unlikely that one, or even a
few designs, will be chosen in a coordinated fashion by
different countries and private entities, discarding the vast
majority of designs that are currently being invested in.
In the case of large nuclear reactors, there are many, very
different, designs being constructed even now, after decades
of construction experience. SMRs and advanced reactors
under development currently have very different designs and
seek to exploit different niches. Such differences do not help
with standardization.
The prognosis for cost reductions is even worse. When we
look at the historical record, the evidence suggests that at the
fleet level nuclear power could even have what has been
termed a negative rate of learning. In the United States and
France, the two countries with the largest nuclear reactor
fleets, reactors that were constructed later actually cost more
than those constructed earlier [65][71]. If this pattern holds
for SMRs, it would mean that a small reactor will never catch
up on cost with a large reactor of similar design.
VI. CAN MODULAR CONSTRUCTION HELP?
As mentioned earlier, SMR promoters emphasize the
importance of “modular construction”, wherein many
components of the reactor are manufactured in factories and
put together on the site, to reduce cost. This has become
standard practice in much of today's manufacture, for
example, in house construction. The practice has also been
incorporated into nuclear reactor manufacture for a while,
especially by Westinghouse.
Westinghouse has emphasized this practice in the design of
the AP1000 reactor and that of the proposed, but never built,
pebble bed modular reactor in South Africa [74, p. 1860], [75].
But the experience of the AP1000 reactors built in the United
States and China shows that this strategy is also problematic,
albeit in a different way from conventional manufacture. Most
importantly, nuclear reactors built in a modular fashion are not
spared the curse of high capital costs. As a former member of
the Georgia Public Service Commission, the state utility
authority overseeing the Vogtle nuclear power plant in the
United States, told the Wall Street Journal, “Modular
construction has not worked out to be the solution that the
utilities promised” [76].
A specific example of how modular construction has not
helped concerns one of the important parameters that
determines the economics of a nuclear project: the time to
construct a nuclear plant. Building a large nuclear plant, from
the first pour of concrete to being able to power homes and
offices, takes about ten years [10]. As against this historical
reality, modular construction was expected by its proponents
to reduce the time frame dramatically. In 2014, for example, a
senior Westinghouse official claimed that the “AP1000 design
saves money and time with an accelerated construction time
period of approximately 36 months, from the pouring of first
concrete to the loading of fuel” [77]. In contrast, the Haiyang
project in China took around 9 years to go from construction
start to being declared commercial [78]. Construction costs,
too, grew dramatically. The AP1000 reactors under
construction in the United States have fared even worse.
The AP1000 is by no means a one-off case. There is a long
history of underestimating the time it would take to complete
a nuclear power plant around the world. Indeed one study of
construction cost overruns showed that 175 out of the 180
nuclear projects examined had final costs that exceeded the
initial budget, on average by 117 percent; they took on average
64% more time than projected [47], [79]. What is special about
the AP1000 is that it was supposed to be an exception to this
pattern because of “modular construction” and it ended up
becoming one more instance of this pattern.
Small modular reactors, too, have suffered cost and time
overruns. For example, Russia’s KLT-40S that is intended for
deployment on a barge as a floating nuclear power plant, has
taken about four times as long as originally projected. Initial
projections in 2006 foresaw the plant being constructed in
about three years, but it took over 12 years for the plant to be
connected to the grid [10]. Cost estimates have quadrupled.
There have been no further orders for the KLT-40S.
When confronted with the economic challenges associated
with SMRs and advanced nuclear reactors, advocates of these
technologies resort to a number of other arguments to persuade
policy makers to offer support. In what follows, we examine a
few of these.
VII. WILL SMALL MODULAR AND ADVANCED
NUCLEAR REACTORS BE MAJOR JOB
CREATORS??
One reason frequently offered for why governments should
support SMR development is that investing in SMRs will lead
to job creation [80][83]. Of course, investment in SMRs will
lead to jobs. That is but a trivial observation. The real question
is whether the number of jobs created by investing a certain
amount of money in SMRs exceeds the number of jobs created
by investing the same amount of money in a different but
comparable energy technology.
Although there is no data on jobs from SMRsbecause
SMRs have not been deployed at any meaningful level to
measure employment figuresthe literature is clear that
nuclear power generates fewer jobs than renewables like solar
and wind energy per unit of energy generated [84], [85]. To
the extent that one can make prognoses about the number of
jobs that might be created by advanced and small modular
nuclear reactors, the outlook would be even more bleak. Most
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VOLUME XX, 2021 3
of these designs are aimed at reducing the numbers of
operators, because the main challenge faced by nuclear power
is cost. There are even those who envision nuclear reactors
operating in a completely automated fashion (for example
[86]), or with minimal operators (e.g., [87]). Thus, one would
expect SMRs and advanced to generate fewer jobs per unit of
electricity output (in megawatt-hours) in comparison to other
energy technologies.
Conversely, because nuclear jobs are high paying, operating
costs of nuclear power plants will be very high. For example,
the nuclear reactor developer Oklo in the United States has
stated that it anticipates 15 full time and well-paying jobs
that are available to local residents with a high school
education” for its 1.5 MW plant [88]. The document does not
define what well-paying means. According to the U.S. Bureau
of Labor Statistics, the annual pay for US nuclear power plant
operators, distributors, and dispatchers in 2019 was $85,950
[89]. (Note that this is the wage for someone with a high
school diploma or equivalent qualification at the time of entry,
not for a highly educated nuclear engineer, who can earn over
$120,000.) Putting these together, just the operational cost of
electricity from an Oklo reactor will be $109 per megawatt
hour if the reactor were to operate at a 90 percent capacity
factor, which is an optimistic assumption for a remote site
where the nuclear plant will have to vary its output according
the changes in demand or load. In other words, even if the
capital cost of the reactor and fueling cost are zero, the cost of
electricity from a hypothetical Oklo power plant will be nearly
three times that of new solar or wind power plants [90]. Note
that this is just the generation cost at the busbar and the costs
for transmission and distribution have to also be incorporated
to compare with residential costs.
Since the cost of solar and wind power are declining, the
difference will be even greater by the time the Oklo reactor
moves from theoretical proposal to a licensed and
constructible design. This large difference in costs implies that
SMRs would be likely be much more expensive even after
accounting for the system costs of other ways of managing the
variability of solar and wind power, such as adding storage.
The dismal economics of Oklo mean that if any are actually
built, it will be because of large government subsidies. Given
this dependence on government funding, one can expect that
even in the best case, only a few such reactors will be
constructed, which then means that the number of jobs
generated will be miniscule.
VIII. CAN SMRS SUPPORT ELECTRICAL GRIDS
WITH LARGE FRACTIONS OF RENEWABLES BY
LOAD FOLLOWING?
The capability to adjust a plant’s power production to respond
to variations in electricity demand is termed load following.
Several advocates have argued that SMRs are capable of load
following [56], [91][94]. Some of these authors refer to the
ability to change output over relatively long periods of time,
for example, between night and day. However, with the
increased share of variable (what is sometimes termed
intermittent) electricity sources such as wind or photovoltaic
power, some nuclear designers have emphasized the capability
of SMRs to quickly change their output in response to changes
in the outputs of wind or solar plants (for example [94]). Load
following capabilities would be essential to the deployment of
SMR designs “off the grid” in remote areas.
Although nuclear power plants are capable of load-
following operations, and this has been done in some
countries, particularly in France and Germany, nuclear
reactors do have technical limitations that constrain their
capability to operate in a load-following mode [95], [96].
From a technical point of view, shutting down, restarting, or
varying the output power are all more challenging for nuclear
power plants, especially water-cooled reactors, compared to
other electricity sources. Frequent and steep temperature
changes accelerate interactions between the nuclear fuel and
the metallic cladding, which, with time, might lead to rupture
of the cladding and the escape of fission products. Such
changes can reduce operating life and increase maintenance
costs.
Because of such safety concerns, regulators require the
power variation rate to be confined within specific margins. In
currently deployed nuclear technologies, the range of allowed
power variation rates is between 15 percent of the rated
power per minute. The European Utilities Requirements
(EUR) document requires the capability to operate between 50
and 100 percent of the plant’s rated power over a day, with a
rate of change of electrical output of 3 to 5 percent of the rated
power per minute [95]. This limited ability to change outputs
from nuclear reactors might not be fast enough to compensate
for the potentially rapid changes of outputs from wind and
solar power plants.
While load following may be technically possible,
operating reactors in this mode would decrease their economic
competitiveness. The challenge arises from the fact that
nuclear power plants have high fixed (capital) costs.
Therefore, it makes more economic sense to operate them
continuously near their maximum capacity in order to improve
the return on investment. On the other hand, oil-fired or gas-
fired peaking plants are better used to cover peak electricity
demand because of their low capital and high fuel costs.
Operating nuclear reactors in a load-following mode would
reduce the capacity factor, which would increase the cost of
electricity generated in these.
When deployed on a grid in conjunction with a large share
of renewable energy sources, nuclear plants will not operate
with the typical 90 to 95 percent capacity factors that are
typically assumed in economic analyses of these power
sources. Should the capacity factor decrease, the cost of
generation will increase because the capital and operating
costs will have to spread out over fewer kilowatt-hours. In the
case of the NuScale SMR, the cost of generating electricity
goes up by about 20 percent if the capacity factor is reduced
from 95 percent to 75 percent [50]. Given the already poor
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VOLUME XX, 2021 3
economic prospects for SMRs, this penalty will essentially
rule out deployment of these technologies in a load-following
mode.
Small modular reactor advocates propose that the energy
not utilized to produce electricity is used for other purposes,
such as desalination [97][99], or co-generating hydrogen
[91], [100]. Such strategies are also proposed by advocates for
renewable energy sources [101][107]. For most SMRs,
hydrogen is produced by using electricity to electrolyze water,
the same as when using renewables. The key difference is that
the costs of nuclear energy, especially from SMRs, are
prohibitively high and rising, whereas the costs of renewables
are low and declining. More narrowly, renewables benefit
from the almost zero marginal costs of solar and wind energy
because they don’t incur any fueling costs and operator costs
are minimal. A few SMR and advanced reactor designs that
do not use water for cooling might be able to do high-
temperature electrolysis at higher efficiencies. However, as
discussed earlier, these designs are far from ready and it is not
possible to carry out any meaningful economic analyses of
these at present.
IX. DO SMRS LOWER THE LIKELIHOOD OF
SEVERE ACCIDENTS OR PRODUCE LESSER
AMOUNTS OF RADIOACTIVE WASTE OR LOWER
THE RISK OF PROLIFERATION?
Proponents claim that SMRs and advanced reactors have
improved safety, reduce radioactive waste generation, and
increase proliferation-resistance. Before we address the
veracity of this claim, it should be remembered that SMRs and
advanced nuclear reactors also suffer these problems, albeit to
different extents from standard large light water reactors.
Thus, building SMRs or advanced reactors will also expose
citizens to these risks.
Because SMRs and advanced reactors encompass a large
number of disparate designs, it is not possible to make
generalized statements. For example, SMRs based on fast
reactor technologies will produce a lower quantity of nuclear
waste per unit of electricity generated, whereas SMRs based
on light water reactor technologies will produce more waste
per unit of electricity generated; but both pose higher risks of
proliferation as compared to large light water reactors [117].
(The difference between SMRs based on fast reactor
technologies and those based on LWRs is the burnup; the
former typically envision in-situ breed-and-burn to maximize
fuel burnup whereas the latter typically adopt a simplified all-
in/all-out core management scheme that lowers the burnup; in
both cases, the smaller size of the reactors contributes to
lowering the burnup because more neutrons will escape the
core in comparison to larger reactors).
The volume of waste is not always the most relevant
variable; the size of the geological repository needed for waste
burial is dependent on heat production and waste composition
[118]. Wastes from fast reactors and other forms of SMRs not
based on light water reactor technology can be corrosive
and/or pyrophoric and dealing with these forms is more
complicated and the necessary processing before disposal
might actually end up increasing the volume [119]. Many
SMR and advanced nuclear reactor designs are fueled by
plutonium, which necessitates the processing of spent fuel,
often at a reprocessing plant; reprocessing plants could
produce increased quantities of different kinds of radioactive
wastes [120], [121].
When it comes to the risks of accidents, all else being equal,
a smaller reactor could be safer because of the smaller
inventory of radioactive material and lower amount of energy
available for release during an accident. However, all else is
seldom equal. Small modular reactor proposals often involve
building multiple reactors at a site to try to lower costs by
taking advantage of common infrastructure elements.
NuScale, for example, proposes to build twelve reactor
modules at each site. Multiple reactors at a site increase the
risk that an accident at one unit might either induce accidents
at other reactors or make it harder to take preventive actions at
others. It is also possible to have multiple units simultaneously
undergoing accidents if the underlying reason for the accident
is a common one that affects all of the reactors, such as an
earthquake. With multiple reactors, the combined radioactive
inventories might be comparable to that of a large reactor.
More generally, the technical characteristics of SMRs do
not allow them to simultaneously solve all these problems
[122]. When examined in detail, SMR and advanced nuclear
reactor designs that are being developed turn out to make
choices about which problem to focus on and make trade-offs
between desired features. Designs that optimize one metric,
say waste volume, might make other challenges, such as the
risk of severe accidents, more acute.
X. IS THERE A MARKET FOR SMRs?
The evidence so far suggests that there is little demand for
SMRs. SMRs developed in Russia (KLT-40S), China (HTR-
PM), and South Korea (SMART) have not found customers
[10]. In the United States, the first proposed SMR project
involving the construction of a NuScale reactor design has run
into trouble, with many utilities that had signed up for the
project choosing to exit the process as the high cost became
more evident [108][110].
Although many developing countries claim to be interested
in SMRs, few seem to be willing to invest in the construction
of one. Good examples are the cases of Jordan, Ghana and
Indonesia, all of which have been touted as promising markets
for SMRs, but none of which are buying one [111][113].
Niche markets, for example, remote mines and
communities that are not otherwise served by the grid and that
are currently electrified using diesel plants with very high fuel
costs, are quite limited. Indeed, even in a best case scenario,
where economics plays no part and where nearly every
potential user of SMRs purchases a small modular reactor, the
net demand from remote mines and communities in Canada
was shown to be far smaller than the minimum demand
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VOLUME XX, 2021 3
necessary to construct the factories needed to build these
reactors [114]. Further, such remote sites have often provided
attractive renewable opportunities [123]-[125].
The lack of adequate demand, either in niche markets, grid
connected markets, or developing countries, is a major
constraint because of the emphasis on modular construction
by SMR and advanced nuclear reactor designers. As one SMR
designer admitted, “A supplier would have to foresee a
sufficient market to invest in factories large enough to achieve
economy of mass production from production runs of many
hundreds of turnkey plants” [115, p. 688].
If there is no market to set up a factory, then SMR plans run
into a chicken and egg problem: without the factory, they
cannot ever hope to achieve the theoretical cost reductions that
are at heart of the strategy to compensate for the lack of
economies of scale.
XI. CONCLUSION
Expectations that small modular or advanced nuclear reactors
will rescue nuclear power are unlikely to be met. Most
advanced nuclear reactor designs are simply not ready for
deployment or commercialization because of technical
problems. Small modular reactors, for their part, start off being
less economical than large reactors because of their smaller
power outputs without correspondingly smaller costs. Various
methods of modifying SMRs and advanced nuclear reactors to
load-follow or co-generate hydrogen or desalinate water do
not help. Nuclear advocates seem to be clutching at straws by
emphasizing these options.
Pursuing SMRs will only worsen the problem of poor
economics that has plagued nuclear power and make it harder
for nuclear power to compete with renewable sources of
electricity. The scenario is even more bleak as we look to the
future because other sources of electricity supply, in particular
combinations of renewables and storage technologies such as
batteries, are fast becoming cheaper.
Finally, because there is no evidence of adequate demand,
it is financially not viable to set up the manufacturing facilities
needed to mass produce SMRs and advanced reactors. All of
these problems might just end up reinforcing The Economist
magazine’s observation from the turn of the century: “nuclear
power, which early advocates thought would be ‘too cheap to
meter’, is more likely to be remembered as too costly to
matter” [116].
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VOLUME XX, 2021 9
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License. For more information, see https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
This article has been accepted for publication in a future issue of this journal, but has not been fully edited. Content may change prior to final publication. Citation information: DOI
10.1109/ACCESS.2021.3064948, IEEE Access
VOLUME XX, 2021 9
M. V. Ramana received the Ph. D. degree in
theoretical physics from Boston University in 1995.
He has held post-doctoral positions at the University
of Toronto and the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology. He has held various positions at
Princeton University’s Program in Science and
Global Security from 1998 to 2004 and again from
2009 to 2016. Between 2004 and 2009, he was
Fellow at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in
Environment and Development, Bangalore, India.
Since 2017 he is the Simons Chair in Disarmament,
Global and Human Security and Director of the Liu
Institute for Global Issues at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs,
University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. In 2020-21, he is a
scholar at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, Vancouver. He is
a member of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, the International
Nuclear Risk Assessment Group, and is part of the group that produces the
annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report. He is the author of The Power
of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India (Penguin Books, 2012) and
co-editor of Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream (Orient Longman, 2003). He
is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship (2003) and a
Leo Szilard Award from the American Physical Society (2014). In 2017-18,
he was chosen as a Distinguished Lecturer by the Sigma Xi Society.
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