Given the slow and somewhat painful shutdowns of perfectly good operating nuclear plants due to competitive pressures from low priced natural gas and subsidized solar and wind generation, is there a future for new nuclear power plants? The recent experience of cost overruns and schedule delays associated with the 4 large (1200 Mwe) nuclear plants being built now in Georgia and South Carolina is not reassuring. Actually, the two in South Carolina have been essentially cancelled by the owners due to these cost overruns and lack of electricity demand.
While natural gas is cleaner than coal from an emissions standpoint, nuclear energy does not emit any CO2 or other noxious gases. As we seek to reduce these emissions, nuclear energy as a baseload source of electricity is needed. Until massive new storage technology is invented and deployed, there is no other clean energy alternative available on a 24 hour, 365 day basis.
So what can we do? Small modular reactors (SMR) are now being designed and licensed in the US which could address some of the fundamental problems of large nuclear plants. These problems include the huge capital investment required for new plants as well offloading large increments of power all at once (1200 Mwe) during a period of slow demand growth. The improved inherent safety design of SMR’s however create cost reduction opportunities without compromising safety. Additionally, due to the small size of SMR’s, they can be modularized allowing for faster construction. These SMRS can also be built to meet electricity demand in increments typically needed.
Despite all these advantages, the problem with these SMRs is the cost of power is higher than that of a large light water reactor due to their small size. Should these plants enter the market however, the speed of construction and factory manufacture of modules could make the plants competitive due to the economy of mass production. The tough part is getting enough early orders to get the mass production going. If we are going to have a cleaner more reliable energy future, small modular reactors are one hope of doing so. In order to cost effectively deploy these SMRs, regulatory changes in staffing, security, and design requirements are needed that recognize the safety these plants provide.