The illusion of small nuclear reactors undermines climate protection

Nuclear energy proponents say that smaller reactors are the climate-saving technology of the future. Yet, if these plans ever see the light of day, their shortcomings are no less egregious than the dinosaur models of the 20th century. Paul Hockenos reports.

There’s no more sanguine booster of “advanced nuclear technology,” such as the blueprints for small modular reactors (SMR), than Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates. He toasts the next-generation technologies as an enabler – an emissions-free, 24/7 back-up – for energy systems based on renewable energies. He plugs them at every opportunity and has invested a chunk of his fortune in TerraPower, the world’s largest nuclear innovation company.

And Gates isn’t alone: the nuclear power lobby and its advocates include deep thinkers such as Barrack Obama and France’s president Emmanuel Macron. Most of them, Macron excluded, have quit on the XXL reactors of the 20th century – in light of their exorbitant expense and ponderous rollout schedules (not because of their danger or toxic waste). They have switched allegiance to smaller models that they claim will be the savior of the nuclear power industry, as well as our warming planet.

Once fabricated at scale, SMRs, claim its advocates, will be safer, quicker to build, and cheaper than the older models – largely because they’re smaller. These next-generation reactors will have a power generating capacity a fraction of traditional nuclear power reactors.

The matter of size

It’s certainly a step in the right direction that most observers now see the postwar, giga-watt-scale water-cooled reactors as obsolete. These colossi generate electricity at three to eight times the cost of large-scale solar and onshore wind facilities, and take over 15 years to get up and running.

But despite the prodigious chatter about a comeback of nuclear, the endeavor to blanket the Earth with SMRs is a chimera that contradicts the same established body of fact that the larger models do, as reported in Undark, a media portal out of MIT. That this rollout won’t happen – or if it eventually does, will unfold too late to curb the climate crisis – might look like a loss to none other than the nuclear industry and investors like Gates.

But its fallout is much broader: nuclear’s ostensible revival, whether it pans out or not, diverts critical resources from the urgent task at hand, namely the ever more important buildout of clean technologies on hand and affordable.

“Much of the battle to meet the challenge of climate change,” argued Mark Cooper of Vermont Law School in a report subtitled, “Why Nuclear Subsidies are an Unnecessary Threat to the Transformation,” “will be over before even one of these reactors is online.”

The most probable scenario is that these ideas never get off the ground. Currently, there are just two facilities that roughly resemble the envisioned SMR type, a pilot in China and Russia’s diminutive Akademik Lomonosov, also the world’s first floating nuclear power plant (a dark irony, its primary purpose is to power fossil fuel mining operations in the Arctic.) Because the Akademik Lomonosov is Russian, it circumvented design certification as required in North America and Europe, and is now because of tension over the Ukraine war beyond the purview of Western experts.

More small reactors are under construction in China and Russia, as well as one in Argentina, but all of them are proving more expensive pro kilowatt than traditional reactors. (There is a dedicated chapter on SMRs in the most recent WNISR 2023.)

In the U.S., the only developer with a design approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is NuScale, which hasn’t yet laid a single brick in Idaho, where it plans to build. Its big win thus far is $4 billion in federal tax subsidies that include a $1.4 billion U.S. Department of Energy contribution and the IRA’s $30/MWh credit, according to the US-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).

This year, NuScale announced that a megawatt of electricity will not cost $58/MWh, as originally pledged, but rather $89/MWh, because of construction costs now estimated at $9.3 billion rather than $6.3 billion. BloombergNEF’s calculates that average global cost of utility-scale solar and onshore wind at $45 and $46 per megawatt-hour, respectively. Were the NuScale reactor to omit the government subsidies, its price tag would be that much higher.

As expected, no NuScale SMR will be built in Idaho– since it announced that it will not begin construction until all of its expected generation capacity is subscribed. Before the price hike, around 50 utilities and other buyers have signed up for less than a quarter of capacity. In November 2023, NuScale finally cancelled its contract with a US utility for building its first SMR in Idaho.

Gates’s TerraPower isn’t even as far as NuScale, although it too is cashing in on subsidies: the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program has pledged up to $2 billion in matching project costs for the construction of a Natrium-cooled demonstration plant (modern nuclear power plants use water as a coolant) in Wyoming. But the Gates project recently took a hit: it faces delays of at least two years because its only source of fuel, namely uranium, was Russia.

There’s no reason that SMRs, like large reactors, will not be subject to egregious delays and cost overruns, valid safety concerns and the conundrum of radioactive waste disposal.

But one wonders why it is then that intelligent people like Gates and Obama are running down this rabbit hole?

I think it’s because they understand the chilling imperative of the climate crisis, and its scope. They’re panicked, and rightly so. In nuclear, the see a miracle-like power source that they know, and can serve millions of customers at a time.

If only Bill Gates and like-minded innovators were putting their minds and fortunes to work on this futuristic project of the present – and not a chimera.


The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

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