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Is Small Nuclear Reactor R&D Fleecing the Public?

Geoffrey Styles's picture
GSW Strategy Group, LLC

Geoffrey Styles is Managing Director of GSW Strategy Group, LLC, an energy and environmental strategy consulting firm. Since 2002 he has served as a consultant and advisor, helping organizations...

  • Member since 2018
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  • Mar 16, 2013

small modular reactor researchTwo weeks ago I received an email announcing that Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), a D.C.-based watchdog organization, had awarded this year’s Golden Fleece for wasting tax dollars to the federal government’s efforts to promote the development of small, modular nuclear reactors (SMRs).  My quick perusal of the award’s justification left me with distinctly mixed reactions, before I filed it away with the other announcements I received that day.  Since then, every time I ran across a reference to SMRs I was drawn back to the group’s assertions about the technology, while questioning whether my opinion of the award would have been different had they singled out the renewable energy loan guarantee program, renewable energy cash grants, or some other example of recent federal generosity toward emerging energy technologies. 

The Golden Fleece awards were started in the mid-1970s by Senator William Proxmire (D-WI).  He had a knack for highlighting egregious examples of government waste and bureaucratic excess, though he also periodically skewered legitimate scientific research.  My view at the time was that he possessed a genuine passion against waste but a poor understanding of how science benefits society. TCS apparently revived the award in 2000.  Its targets since then have included projects such as Alaska’s infamous Bridge to Nowhere.  Fair enough.  Yet as I reread the group’s claims about the government’s support for this technology, it came across less as a balanced critique and more like a one-sided attack that misinterprets the concepts involved, thus falling into the same trap that the late Senator occasionally did. 

Let’s set aside the question of cost for a moment.  The US is exiting an era in which government could unquestioningly pay for any idea that anyone in the administration or Congress could think up.  Programs and projects like this should indeed have to vie with each other for scarce funding, guided by a clearly articulated list of our national priorities, a consensus on which is long overdue.  However, that’s not the argument TCS is making.  It rests instead on four points specific to SMRs:

First, they treat SMRs as an entirely unproven technology with no cost-performance track record, despite having reminded us a few paragraphs earlier that at least some SMR designs are an outgrowth of extremely successful naval reactor programs.  Their contention that “no one is clamoring to buy an SMR because there is no assurance that the electricity will be remotely competitive with power from other sources” could have been made about any early-stage energy technology.  That raises basic questions about the legitimate role of all federal energy R&D spending, but in the context of a single technology that happens to be at the starting blocks today.  Moreover, disqualifying SMRs on the basis of today’s low natural gas prices conflates a genuinely challenging commercial environment with a standard that, if applied consistently, would soon leave us 100% reliant on natural gas for electricity generation.  Not even the most ardent supporters of shale gas would advocate that.  The better question to ask is how nuclear–small or large–fits into a diverse future energy mix.

Next TCS states that the case for SMRs contradicts the logic behind large-scale nuclear power–implying that both can’t be valid–rather than viewing them as distinct and different models for nuclear generation.  If anything, the real contradiction lies in saddling SMRs with the history of cost overruns in large-scale nuclear, much of which has resulted from protracted permitting delays and lawsuits, or on-site construction problems that SMRs are specifically intended to circumvent. 

I agree with TCS when they say, “There is no assurance that SMRs would pass regulatory muster.”  Yet when has any new energy technology arrived with such a guarantee?  Their concerns about the organizational challenges that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would face if SMRs progressed strike me as a better argument for reviewing the funding, structure and processes of the NRC, than one against SMRs.

Finally, the award text evokes unmanaged nuclear waste and terrorist attacks on SMRs emplaced in suburban locations.  There’s little I can add to the decades-long debate on nuclear waste other than to observe that the challenges involved fall more into the realm of politics than science and engineering.  As for SMRs in suburbs, although that might be the vision of some nuclear entrepreneurs it seems realistic now only if we define “suburb”–a word that TCS went out of its way to repeat– as any part of the country not within some urban zone.  The likeliest locations for at least the first generation of SMRs are within the site boundaries of operating or retired large-scale nuclear power plants: locations already well-protected against terrorism and other threats.  SMRs are not coming to a neighborhood near you any time soon, with or without federal funding.

Returning to my discomfort with my initial, somewhat reflexive reaction to the award, Taxpayers for Common Sense raised some concerns about federal support for small modular reactors that could fairly be aimed at a wide array of programs within the roughly $10 billion per year portion of the Department of Energy’s budget that isn’t related to nuclear weapons, along with the recent federal stimulus.  Despite that, SMRs have significant potential as a future source of low-emission electricity on a scale that could prove more compatible with the current capital budgets of the power industry, and with an emerging, renewables-intensive, smart-grid-enabled energy mix.  Without singling out this technology, I agree that in a post-sequestration world of limited budgets we should be asking more of the kind of hard questions that TCS raises about “market-distorting subsidies.”   However, if their intention was to stimulate that kind of debate across the whole energy space, their cause might have been better served by taking it on directly, rather than targeting a concept that enjoys wide support as a legitimate focus of federal R&D spending.  

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Mar 16, 2013

Geoffrey, the tone and logic of the TCS ‘Golden Fleece Award’ for SMR’s appears more similar to anti-nuclear arguments normally made on MSNBC, than for a supposed ‘nonpartisan’ organization.  As you state, the award justification reeks of basic misunderstanding of how modular unit designs work and their pros and cons.  In the case of SMR’s vs. existing large reactor nuclear power plants, the modular units can be built much more efficiently in centralized factories rather than custom/costly, on-site construction of past nuclear plants.  As you suggest, dozens of SMR’s could be fabricated off-site and installed in parallel at existing retired nuclear sites, which further saves on- and off-site infrastructure costs.

What the TCS and other apparently anti-nuclear organizations fail to understand or ignore is that SMR’s will compete with existing baseload coal power plants after pending EPA regulations required carbon capture and sequestration, not natural gas intermediate and peaking plants.  Without both these options, how do they expect the U.S. or any country to substantially expand variable wind/solar power and reasonably maintain power grid stabilities and reliabilities in the future? 

Leo Klisch's picture
Leo Klisch on Mar 17, 2013

Take Iowa for example as a closed system. Last year they achieved 24.5% from wind. January was at 1490Twh and July at 643Twh. So maybe 50% from wind in January to 20% in July. To simplify eliminate the daily fluctuation of load and even seasonal. If SMR's were used for backup/base, you would need 80% SMR in July and only 50% in January. Would the SMR's be throttled down only if wind is cheaper. If wind is cheaper then it would be built out to handle at least 100% of July's load so it doesn't go to waste. Then the SMR's are shut down in July. If MSR's are cheaper then eventually they provide 100% and no renewables. You could throw in PV during July and all sorts of other variables but for the simple example above wind could be built out to handle 100% of January's load to 643/1490 = 43% of July's load. This would leave around 25% back up for CCGT's. Over a couple decades PV, biogas, storage, demand/response, etc. would be built out to replace even more NG. As power prices rise, more attention would be given to efficiency projects.

I think building of MSR's are in a spectrum of large machine building from houses,skyscrapers, ships to the 787 Dreamliner. The low tech house is more or less still built/assembled from scratch on site like existing nuclear plants. The Dreamliner has centralized design and engineering, part and sub assembly done globally with final assembly and testing/qualification done at company facilities. MSR's would be much closer in process to the 787. Certainly Boeing is able to leverage it's tooling and skilled workforce at one central location for both cost, quality and probably schedule. But as the machine gets bigger, more complex and lower volume I'm not sure just how much cost is saved. At least shipping the final assembly is much easier for Boeing.  

Jessee McBroom's picture
Jessee McBroom on Mar 17, 2013

As part of an "All Of The Above",  National Energy Strategy; I believe SMRs could play a vital role in our National energy plan on our sequestered National Budgets of late..The technology is a proven technology through Naval applications. The modular nature of the SMR and prefabrication off site aspects are appealing as well. The Small aspect of SMRs also lends a nice comfortable understanding that the number of SMRs could be adjusted in an era of Budget Sequestrations to accomofate National Budget reductions without having to live without any Nuclear technology in the Energy Mix due to huge costs associated with Nuclear technologies and buildc.Applicable Scale through modular design is an easy technical approach to incorporate into a fluctuating economy and National Budget.

Bobbi O's picture
Bobbi O on Mar 17, 2013

  I find it curious that you tend to 'lean in' for federal fundinig for SMRs { which I hardily support } even though you yourself see them  has having "significant potential ' , NOT CERTAINTY , 'of providing low emissions electricity  on a scale that could prove more compatible to the current capital bugets of the power industry," Why are you willing to take this leap of faith and not so much so on EVs. I hope you were not overly influence by the trashy article in the NYS  by Bjorn Lomborg  which is answered today on Cleantechnica by an article " Bjorn Lomborg's hot air on Electric Cars" dated March 14 or 15th. Certainly the potential rewards for adoption of EVs { national security, reduced emissions ,and  trade deficit reduction ] are more than equal to the benefits of SMRs?
 My point is , great military generals and great policy makers must not depend too much on the most current War's tactics or the most current data but also include their best estimate of what will be possible ; whether that be future military conflicts or energy policy.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Mar 17, 2013

@wind smith

Your initial premise is incorrect. Iowa is not a closed system any more than Denmark or Germany are closed systems. In all cases, the geographic boundary of state or country is almost invisible to the electrons that flow over the interconnecting wires that bind the territory with that of its neighbors.

Those neighboring territories enable the large penetration of unpredictable wind energy that is sometimes to much, sometimes to little and rarely just right. Their grids absorb the excesses and supply the power that drives Iowa when the wind is not blowing.

In contrast, there are perfect examples of closed systems completely powered by small modular reactors. They are called "nuclear submarines" and they operate for months at a time without any grid connection, without any fuel supply lines and without producing any waste that requires immediate disposal.


Rod Adams, Publisher, Atomic Insights

Disclosure: I am a proud employee of, but not a spokesperson for, the small modular reactor design company that was the recipient of the unjustified "Fleece". I speak only for myself on the Internet; my views are not necessarily shared by my employer.

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Mar 17, 2013

There's no contradiction.  I'm very supportive of EV and battery R&D.  My beef is mainly with a $7,500 tax credit that is a) extraordinarily ineffecient in terms of the fuel and emissions savings it buys, relative to the unsubsidized hybrids with which these cars currently compete and b) structured to benefit mainly higher-income consumers, by virtue of the level of adjusted gross income necessary in order to be paying enough taxes to offset this non-refundable tax credit against.  (Somewhere around $90k, depending on how earned.)  So let's have a robust effort on SMRs, EVs, batteries, solar, improved shale recovery, and a full range of energy options, but let's be more cautious about funding deployment.


Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Mar 18, 2013


I had the same reaction to the wording of the press release that you did, perhaps accentuated by the fact that the original email alert was from a PR source that puts out numerous press releases highly critical of the nuclear industry and nuclear power in general.  It would certainly be interesting to know whether TCS received input from any activist groups in formulating this year's award.

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Mar 18, 2013
james craig's picture
james craig on Apr 12, 2013

Have you looked at the new generation of nuclear reactors?

Actually they are not new as the first of its kind was built and operated at Oak Ridge, Tenn. in the 1960s  Here is a link with some very good information.

You may want to check some developments at the N.R.L.


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