Nuclear power today is a complicated topic. For the last few decades, sky-high costs and concerns over safety, waste disposal, and uranium mining have stalled the development of new nuclear power plants. But recently, the talk of supporters of nuclear-powered electricity generation is about smaller, potentially safer, operationally flexible, plants that can produce electricity with no greenhouse gas emissions. These small-scale reactors have many across the political spectrum pointing to them as the solution to our climate and energy problems. But are they?
Many advocates of this proposed new era of nuclear technology have a sincere interest in rapid decarbonization of world electricity generation and hope that this will be a silver bullet. However, the more we learn, the more we are concerned that this emerging technology isn’t a silver bullet but instead a poisoned dart that could delay affordable and meaningful action on climate change until it’s too late.
These “new” nuclear technologies are often referred to as next generation, advanced nuclear, micro-reactors, mini-reactors, small-scale nuclear reactors (SMRs), and Generation IV. Here is a list of some of the projects that have been proposed:
- Bill Gates & PacifiCorp’s 345-megawatt Natrium sodium fast reactor in Wyoming will supposedly be operational by the late 2020s, with the federal government footing 50% of the projected $4 billion cost.
- NuScale’s $6 billion, 77-megawatt light-water SMR at the Idaho National Lab whose promoters claim that its test facility will be completed in the late 2020s with commercial development sometime thereafter.
- Idaho’s Oklo Power 1.5-megawatt fast reactor design, which was just denied by federal regulators over unanswered safety issues.
All of these technologies use some form of uranium, and none have any long-term off-site storage plans. Concerns about radiation from nuclear reactors always cause permitting delays. Large – sometimes gigantic – cost overruns are also the rule, rather than the exception. These issues and others lead many experts to doubt that this technology could be available in time to meet decarbonization needs.
Last year, the promise of this new technology caused the Montana Legislature to repeal a 1978 citizens’ initiative that established state-based safeguards for nuclear energy development and a requirement for a public vote before a nuclear project could move forward (HB 278, Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell). The legislature also passed a bill to study this new type of technology to find out if it could replace the Colstrip coal-fired power plant (SJ 3, Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena).
In January 2022, the Legislature’s interim energy committee heard from three speakers about this new technology. A former Nuclear Regulatory commissioner, who oversaw the licensure of 20 nuclear reactors, was not optimistic about the technology. Even the optimistic pro-industry speakers admitted that even under the best case scenario these reactors won’t be ready for commercial development until the end of the decade and there is still no long-term off-site waste storage option. In the coming months, the Committee will hear from experts who will talk about the immense financial commitments this new technology requires to become commercially available. The high price tags of these facilities are widely expected to be their Achilles’ heel.
A new report released in February 2022 by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) focused on the financial viability of NuScales’ proposed SMR technology. The report concluded that this first-of-its-kind design is risky in multiple ways. For starters, this kind of device has never been built, operated, or tested and this one is already years behind schedule and way over budget. Seven municipalities in Utah pulled out of the project last year due to its then-current $6 billion price tag. IEEFA critiqued NuScale’s optimistic construction cost, building time horizon, operation costs, and claims about operational flexibility to meet changing energy demands. It concluded that NuScale’s estimates for all four of these areas to be erroneous, out-of-date, unsupported, and exceedingly expensive compared to renewable energy technology combined with electricity storage.
A recent letter from a former head of the United Kingdom’s Radiation Risk Committee and the three former heads of nuclear regulation in German, France, and the U.S., stated that while climate change is an impending disaster, “the reality is nuclear is neither clean, safe or smart; but [rather] a very complex technology with the potential to cause significant harm. Nuclear isn’t cheap, but extremely costly,” and “nuclear is just not part of any feasible strategy that could counter climate change.”