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Is there a potential role for Next Generation Nuclear power – i.e., Small Modular Reactors and Advanced Reactors –to achieving a carbon-free grid?

Sean Hagen's picture
President The Institute of Global Energy Education

I'm currently on the Board and executive team starting-up the Institute of Global Energy Education, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. The Institute's purpose is to fill existing knowledge gaps in how...

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  • Mar 4, 2021

Do any of the panelists see a potential role for Next Generation Nuclear power – i.e., Small Modular Reactors and Advanced Reactors – which provide carbon-free flexible generation?”

Asked by: Director & Vice President - The Institute of Global Energy Education

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As much as we find them intriguing and wish for more of these advanced nuclear reactors, I find them to be extremely dangerous and hazardous if not taken proper care. The implications of the current nuclear power plants are critical enough for the residents living nearby. If we had to have more nuclear reactors, mini or advanced, what would be the global impact of having them at every other place? We do not want another Chernobyl incident to happen. 

Nuclear power is indeed a step towards clean energy but it is not completely renewable due to the materials used. So instead of widespread installation of reactors across globe, we should find alternatives to expanding the existing set ups or finding remote areas where electricity is a dream and set up there to avoid human interaction as much as possible. Keeping in mind that the CO2 emissions caused by this is no less than that of a wind so nuclear is a great alternative. Additionally, we can have large scale deployments too. 

There may be role for SMRs if there were a price on carbon and they can be seen competitive with NG CCGT. In a study performed by one of my students carbon pricing at ~$10/ton may be the threshold. No doubt SMR costs themselves will decline once there is market traction around the world.

The cost to develop the small reactors, particularly licensing, is extremely large. Further, the reliability and safety of several of these reactor types is problematic. These elements combined mean there is a lot of financial risk with the likelihood of profitability pretty small.There is little chance that small reactors will be competitive.

Further, pragmatically the potential presence of small reactors would have negligible impact on the climate. The daunting financial aspects of the technologies mean few, if any, small reactors will ultimately be deployed.

Bottom line is small reactors are more trouble than they are worth from a power generation, financial, and regulatory standpoint.

Definitely YES. Holtec International seems to be taking the lead. The are moving to acquire three US nuclear plants, Oyster Creek, in NJ, Pilgrim in MA, and Indian Point in NY. Their strategy seems to be to deploy their 160MW Small Modular Reactors (SMR-160) at these sites. There are regulatory hurdles, for example in 2017 the NRC launched a rulemaking into emergency preparedness for SMR's, they held a public meeting last summer, received hundreds of comments from stakeholders and still have not finalized the EP rule. EnerKnol is a regulatory analytics platform that monitors developments like this across jurisdictions. With EnerKnol I can keep a laser focus on Holtec. If you want to learn more about EnerKnol please contact me

Hi Sean, 
Advanced nuclear certainly belongs in the mix of clean energy solutions. Nuclear is an excellent clean energy source that pairs well with other clean energy solutions (wind, solar etc.). Achieving a carbon-free grid is going to take a lot of partnership and advanced nuclear can act as a steady, flexible and reliable base-load source. 

SMRs and other advanced nuclear technologies is being advanced cross the globe and I believe will be a vital component to offering clean and affordable access to electricity equitably. SMRs will provide a safe, less expensive and easier-to-operate option for carbon-free generated electricity than the traditional larger plants (that are still needed). The new ability to build and deploy on a smaller scale means there will be more opportunity for communities around the world to afford clean energy and therefore improve quality of life.

Sean - In additional to the smaller size for SMR's leading to lower total investment in facilities vs. the mega scale that most nuclear power plants are built at now, the ability to share development costs across multiple units is critical.  With most of the safety and performance critical work being done in a factory environment, these units will be safer, easier to operate and should be less expensive.  There is history of this, I was fortunate to operate one of the most common nuclear reactors (S6G) - the GE built unit on the Los Angles class submarine (62 total built, 30 still operating).  Even through the generational shifts over the manufacturing life of this most common nuclear submarine, the commonality led to tremendous reliability, safety and although difficult to measure - I assume cost savings.  

Hopefully this type of efficiency can be repeated for civilian SMR's providing the world with critically important carbon-free base load electricity generation.  As we all know, few of our facilities can operate without power, so having consistent generation has a great amount of value.  

Brendan Kelly's picture
Brendan Kelly on Apr 6, 2021

Gary - you bring up a great point, that SMR's have been on submarines for years.

I'd like learn more about that for our next report. It may go a long way towards reassuring the public about the safety of SMRs.

We are an energy and regulatory research platform with access to all publicly available info at relevant federal agencies.  Do you think info is available to compare the S6G to Holtec  Hitachi  & NuScale?


Yes they do have a role, Just not in California. See the first recent post below, Especially the last section. Other other three posts are specific to SMRs.

Cold Weather Renewables

Cold Weather Renewables | Energy Central

    1. Nukes – Part 4

In the prior Nukes Papers, I indicated that (1) Gen 3 Nukes could not compete with other renewable generation technologies, (2) Small Modular Reactors (SMR) appeared to have the ability to compete with these where they were required, and (3) there are (at least) three SMR manufacturers that seem to have the ability to achieve economic viability.

In this post we will look at the progress that the three U.S. SMR manufacturers have made, and identify any other potential SMR or other nuke manufacturers.

    1. Nukes – Part 3

This is my third part in this series: The original “Nukes” was posted in October of 2018. In that paper we reviewed the various generations of reactors, and reviewed the economics of the large reactors currently being constructed (Generation III) versus the economics for other generation technologies.

Nukes – Part 2 (Little Nukes) was posted in January, 2019. This specifically focused on small modular reactors (SMRs), and on the most promising for these designs for U.S. which is being produced by NuScale.

Recently in a periodic review of SMR technology, I discovered that at least one new player has decided to join the party. This post will review the new player and any additional potential SMR designs.

    1. Nukes, Part 2: Little Nukes

NuScale's Small Modular Reactor Design now appears to be viable, and thus this paper on their technology and economics.

Valerie Gardner's picture
Valerie Gardner on Mar 9, 2021

John, it surprised me to learn that the prohibition in California only applies to new nuclear fission builds which will have spent "fuel rods" while there is no federally-sanctioned waste reprocessing/storage plan. This won't apply to a number of advanced reactor designs. (See this summary

Development of small modular reactors is a huge global effort. Here are a few highlights.

The leaders for SMR development in the western world are, in order, Canada, UK, and the US.  Canada has an SMR roadmap and is aggressively supporting developers in that nation. At least a dozen vendors are participating in the program. The US has so far focused on just one vendor, NuScale, for a 60 MWe SMR to be built at a first of a kind unit in a 12 pack configuration. A site in Idaho has been selected for the firm's first customer. The UK has been slow to support SMRs and has underfunded the effort, but Rolls Royce, which built small reactors for the UK submarine fleet, has an effort underway to design and build a 440 MWe LWR as a cheaper alternative to the 1600 MWe units being built at Hinkley Point C.

China has recently committed to a single SMR design, mostly for support of military bases, and Russia has focused on using floating nuclear power in the form of SMRs, adapted from their nuclear [powered icebreakers, to deliver electricity to remote arctic sites. South Korea has a 100 MWe SMR that is it co-developing with Saudi Arabia. The IAEA has several surveys and technical reports on the SMR effort globally so check their website for them.

I cover this area on my blog Neutron Bytes.  Here are a few trends.

  • SMRs based on LWR designs are mostly focused on electricity generation for utilities that cannot afford 1000 MW plants
  • SMRs based on advanced or fast reactor designs are focused not only on electricity generation but also process heat applications across multiple uses such as hydrogen production, desalinization, and steam for industry or district heating
  • While the IAEA has established an upper limit of 300 MWe for defining SMRs, some firms have done in the other direction developi mini and micro SMRs in the range of 5-10 MWe for mini and 50-100 MWe for micro. Examples in the US include Oklo and in Canada ARC 100.

For those of you who would like a deeper dive into some examples of SMR development, here are a few articles from my blog that highlight the opportunities and challenges facing SMR developers of all types.

Dan Yurman

There certainly should be a role for them. A big role. Objectively, they have the potential to be the most economical, most environmentally benign solution for decarbonization.

Current generation pressurized water reactors have a concrete and steel footprint an order of magnitude less than that of a modern wind turbine, measured against energy output over working lifetime. Unpressurized small-modular reactors hold the promise of a further 10-fold reduction. The mining impact for nuclear fuel is roughly two orders of magnitude less than the impact for mining and processing of rare earth metals, nickel, cobalt, aluminum, and other materials required for wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries. Some advanced reactor designs would not require mining for fuel at all; they could run for centuries on stockpiled wastes we already have on hand.

None of that says much about the role SMRs and advanced NPPs will actually end up playing. What happens depends on government policies, and government policies are determined by activists and focused interest groups. Advocacy for nuclear power is largely an amateur's pastime. There are many individuals who care about climate change and the environment, but their interests are diffuse. A few understand enough to favor nuclear power, but the issue has little immediacy for them. In this society, most people don't truly think for themselves. They subscribe to the narratives favored by friends and neighbors, or that have the highest public media profiles. Anti-nuclear narratives, alas, have very high media profiles.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 5, 2021

"Advocacy for nuclear power is largely an amateur's pastime."

Agree Roger. Much wider profit margin selling a huge, inefficient energy infrastructure than a compact, efficient one; or force-feeding consumers billions of cubic feet of gas per day vs. 440 lbs. of uranium pellets.

"In this society, most people don't truly think for themselves."

True, but skyrocketing electricity rates often get them asking questions.

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Mar 8, 2021

"Advocacy for nuclear power is largely an amateur's pastime."

The US Nuclear Energy Institute undoubtedly would take issue with this statement as would various supplier and other trade associations.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 8, 2021

Dan, following are some annual budgets for energy advocacy organizations:

Nuclear Energy Institute - $54 million (2016)
American Petroleum Institute - $229.7 million (2016)
American Gas Association - $38.2 million (2019)

Anti-nuclear organizations
Greenpeace - $36.7 million (2019)
Environmental Defense Fund - $185.6 million (2019)
Natural Resources Defense Council - $181.8 million (2019).

NEI has historically straddled two worlds: promotion of nuclear energy, and providing an essential resource for energy companies with multiple interests - nuclear, gas, coal, and renewables. Until recently they've been criticized for not taking a firm stand for nuclear, preferring to take a more neutral stand while holding on to corporate members with paid access to NEI's valuable Personal Access Data System.

That all changed when Maria Korsnick was elected NEI President in 2017. She promptly removed access for NextEra Energy after the company refused to pay membership fees. NextEra promptly sued NEI, claiming 

"NEI, rather than supporting nuclear, has undertaken, both overtly and covertly, efforts to undermine other generation resources -- again, implicitly implying and explicitly stating that diversity of generation, rather than making a system more reliable and lower cost, somehow is bad for the electric system."

Of course, support for one source of energy often comes at the expense of others.

I don't think Roger's comment was meant to disparage professionals at NEI, but was a general comment on the resources available to pay nuclear industry professionals to advocate. There's no doubt Korsnick's tenure has been marked by significant advances for nuclear energy in national policy.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Mar 17, 2021

"...should be a role for them. ...have the potential to be.."

This is the story of nuclear through the decades.  When they realize their potential and there is a role, we will have to give them consideration.  Until then, it is all "woulda", "shoulda", "coulda". 

What is the earliest this potential will be reality? 2030? Until then, they will only survive by bribing legislators and lying to regulators.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Mar 18, 2021

The reasons that campaigns against nuclear power have been successful have little or nothing to do with the technical merits of nuclear power per se. They have more to do with the institutional framework under which it was developed and regulated. Long sad story. It's left a toxic legacy that still dogs "conventional" nuclear power.

Vince Bowen's picture
Vince Bowen on Apr 6, 2021

Spot on! That's why "educating the public" has not worked. It's an emotional issue and you can't overcome that with a technical argument.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 18, 2021

Mark, the oil and gas industry, with which we know you're intimately connected, has funded multiple attempts to shut down nuclear plants through its proxy the "American Petroleum Institute".

Has anyone ever attempted to enlist you in their efforts?

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Mar 17, 2021

From NRDC´s web page (Policy Basics): (Bold by me)

Following a 30-year period in which few new reactors were completed, it is expected that four new units—subsidized by federal loan guarantees, an eight-year production tax credit, and early cost recovery from ratepayers—may come on line in Georgia and South Carolina by 2020.

NRDC is not opposed in principle to nuclear power, and acknowledges its beneficial low-carbon attributes in a warming world but we take seriously the significant safety, global security, environmental, and economic risks that use of this technology imposes on society. This demands stringent regulation of the complete nuclear fuel cycle, beginning with the mining and milling of uranium and ending with the final disposal of radioactive wastes. Until these risks are properly mitigated, expanding nuclear power should not be a leading strategy for diversifying America’s energy portfolio and reducing carbon pollution. 

Sounds like pretty reasonable policy to me.


Regarding EDF, get a load of this regarding EDF´s blog "why-we-still-need-americas-nuclear-power-plants-at-least-for-now/"

"...I will be the first to recognize the importance of your acknowledgment of nuclear energy here, and to hope it represents a change of policy at a non-profit with the resources to make a real difference in the fight against climate change.

In recent years, President Fred Krupp has professed a “neutral” position on nuclear energy..."

Bob Meinetz

Posted April 18, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

EDF doesn´t sound like an enemy of nuclear power to me. Nor, apparently, to you.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 18, 2021

Since that article was posted, unfortunately Krupp's actions haven't matched his rhetoric:

"One of EDF’s largest donors is oil, gas and renewables investor Julian Robertson, who has donated $60 million to EDF and sits on EDF’s governing board.
EDF lobbies for subsidies for wind and solar that would directly benefit Robertson and other members of EDF's board of directors.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is one of the most influential anti-nuclear organizations in the United States with revenues of $158 million in 2016.

EDF is actively seeking to replace nuclear plants around the country including in the states of California, New York, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania with natural gas and renewables.

EDF is working alongside the American Petroleum Institute (Big Oil & Natural Gas) to lobby against saving nuclear plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

EDF has since the 1970s sought to close nuclear plants directly and indirectly by lobbying for laws including federal subsidies and renewable energy mandates that discriminate against nuclear."

Both EDF and the American Petroleum Institute have since spent $millions in shutting down nuclear plants nationwide:

"EDF supports prematurely shutting down California's last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon, claiming the 'phase-out of the Diablo Canyon nuclear facility is good for Californians and firmly supports the state’s clean energy future. By making this commitment, PG&E confirms California customers will be better – and more affordably – served by a mix of clean energy resources, including renewable energy and energy efficiency.'

EDF has gone on to greenwash its advocacy by falsely claiming it can be replaced by intermittent renewables like solar and wind, demand response, and batteries."

In 2017 I had some hope for antinuclear activists and organizations, but I shouldn't have - they're all liars.

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