Dubious economics of Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

FOR GENERAL ATOMICS, SMALLER NUCLEAR PLANTS ARE BEAUTIFUL, San Diego Union Tribune  But can its technology work? And is it even needed? BY ROB NIKOLEWSKI July 15, 2016 The scientists and engineers at General Atomics think the future of nuclear energy is coming on the back of a flatbed truck.

And the leadership at the San Diego-based company, which has been developing nuclear technologies for more than 60 years, has already spent millions in the expectation that its ambitious plans for the next generation of reactors will actually work.

“We have technology that we think is going to qualitatively change the game,” saidChristina Back, vice president of nuclear technologies and materials at General Atomics……..it’s designed to produce a reactor that’s so compact that the company’s handout material shows it being transported by tractor-trailer.

But EM² is still a long way from becoming a day-to-day reality in a fast-changing energy landscape.

Just building a prototype, Back said, is at least 10 years away and, “we’re looking at 2030-ish” before a commercial reactor could be up and running using EM² technology……And there are no guarantees the design will work……

Here in the United States, natural gas may pose an even greater challenge. Techniques such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have unlocked vast amounts of natural gas in North America and the increased supply has lowered prices. Utilities are increasingly turning to natural gas-fired power plants to generate electricity, at least in large part, because gas burns much cleaner than coal.

Where does that leave nuclear?…….. nuclear has long faced intense opposition from those who consider it an inherently dangerous source of power and the EM² technology is being developed at a time when nuclear plants are getting shut down in places such as Illinois, Vermontand New York.

The environment for nuclear power in California is even more daunting……Critics of nuclear power point  to the falling costs and rising production numbers for renewable energy, as well as a mandate from the California Public Utilities Commission ordering the state’s big three investor-owned utilities to add 1.3 gigawatts of energy storage to their grids by the end of the decade.

McKinzie said the success of any advanced nuclear technology largely rests on its performance in the prototype stage, which does not come cheaply.”Safety and performance really have to be addressed by the protoype,” said McKinzie, who holds a doctorate in experimental nuclear physics from the University of Pennsylvania. “When you’re talking on the order of a billion dollars to get to that point, that’s a pretty high hurdle.”….The leadership at General Atomics has invested $40 million so far in the EM² technology…….General Atomics was one of five companies that received a share of a $13 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy in October 2014…….

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