Small nuclear reactors – the nuclear industry’s last ditch chance to thrive?
if this purported renaissance doesn’t flourish, there is unlikely to be another.
Climate urgency, energy security and government support make this a make-or-break moment for atomic energy
Japan Times, BY LIAM DENNING, BLOOMBERG 19 Dec 22,
Once again, we are on the cusp of a nuclear renaissance. Actually realizing one requires something nuclear power isn’t known for: Speed.
………. There are two sides to a mooted renaissance. One is a new lease on life for existing plants. More than 10 reactors have closed over the past decade, largely because cheap shale gas depressed the price of electricity and burgeoning renewables also muscled in.
……….. The last reactor came online in 2016. Not only was it the first in 20 years, its construction kicked off more than 40 years ago………
Nuclear power’s fall from grace is often traced to the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, which stoked distrust from the public and excessive zeal from regulators. But nuclear power was struggling already. Many projects had been canceled before 1979, in part because it was already taking a decade to plan, license and construct a plant. Capital costs soared well before Three Mile Island, more than doubling in real terms between 1971 and 1978, flouting the conventional wisdom of greater scale leading to efficiencies.
…………………………. The bankruptcy of the Washington Public Power Supply System in the early 1980s exemplified this collision of rosy demand assumptions with new economic realities, saddling ratepayers with billions in costs for abandoned, half-built plants. The same thing happened as recently as 2017 with the abandonment of two unfinished projects in South Carolina. Two other new reactors have actually been built in Georgia and are due to switch on next year. But they are far from being good PR; massively over-budget and delayed, they owe their completion to regulators offloading much of the cost onto ratepayers.
Meanwhile, as much as climate change bolsters the case for nuclear power, it has also bolstered alternatives. Not just renewable power and batteries, but conservation now enhanced by distributed energy technologies and sophisticated demand-management tools. Unlike nuclear power, the cost of such technologies has been falling fast.
……………… Competing clean technology cost trends and whatever else the 2020s throw up lie between now and the likely start of new projects at scale in the 2030s.
This is why the current renaissance centers on developing small modular reactors, or SMRs……… Companies such as NuScale Power and TerraPower LLC, founded by Bill Gates, aim to deploy initial commercial projects in the late 2020s.
…………….. Despite being talked about for years, however, SMRs haven’t arrived yet. “There are no good cost estimates (for SMRs) because no one’s actually built one,” says Jonathan Koomey, a researcher studying energy technology costs and co-author of a forthcoming book “Solving Climate Change.” Given nuclear power’s track record, he adds, “what’s needed is a construction time and cost that we could predict with accuracy.”Even under good circumstances — and there are signs of cost issues already — initial SMR projects likely won’t operate for several more years. That means commercialization at scale is probably at least a decade away. What will the cost of competing technologies be by then?
………… government must underwrite that risk to some degree. For the existing plants, and those new ones in Georgia, that involved guaranteed recovery of costs for regulated utilities. Today, it is subsidies and development grants and loans……………………
We are in a moment where all the stars have seemingly aligned: climate urgency, energy security concerns, new technology, new subsidies, and government intervention in energy markets writ large. The corollary is that, with our grids undergoing fundamental change and net-zero targets bearing down on us, if this purported renaissance doesn’t flourish, there is unlikely to be another. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2022/12/19/commentary/world-commentary/u-s-nuclear-reactors/