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What role for small modular nuclear reactors in combating climate change?

Posted on 1 October 2021 by greenman3610

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections

Does the potential of small modular nuclear reactor technology make it a viable approach to helping solve climate change challenges not fully met by renewable energy sources such as wind and solar?

Experts interviewed in this Yale Climate Connections “This is Not Cool” original video in some cases hold out hope. But they also confront timing, economic, and communications obstacles that could be prohibitive.

Other Lab Chief Executive Officer Saul Griffith voices what he characterizes as “an extraordinary position … but hopefully not too extraordinary a postilion.” Nuclear energy, Griffith says, “has been pretty reliable and very safe and compared to other energy sources, all told, reasonably priced …. and good.” But he backtracks some: He readily acknowledges “huge political headwinds” and concerns about availability of adequate cooling water supplies, a view expressed also by water resources expert Peter Gleick. Griffith points to what many – among them proponents of nuclear energy – fear may be an Achilles heel: “It’s unclear if safe and reliable nuclear energy can compete with just where solar and wind are going …. That’s the reality.”

University of California Berkeley nuclear engineering professor Daniel Kammen says he’s hoping nuclear energy can fill some needs that renewables may not resolve. But he points to a stiff “learning curve.” In addition, Kammen says “There’s more work to be done on nuclear than on any other area for it to be a competitor.”

Less optimistic on the new nuclear technology is Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. He says small modular reactors are attracting a lot of interest in part because “big ones have failed.” He is concerned by projections that the reality of small modular nuclear reactors may be close to a decade away. Too long a wait, Makhijani says: “We must have overwhelming momentum to zero carbon energy by that time.”

In the other corner, as one might say of a prize fight, is Microsoft founder Bill Gates, a bit more optimistic – or at a minimum more hopeful – than the others: “Nuclear power can be done in a way so that none of those nuclear failures of the past would recur because of just the physics” of small modular nuclear design.

“Convincing people of that may be just as hard as actually building it,” Gates tells CNN’s Anderson Cooper. But nuclear power “may be necessary because of climate change, so we shouldn’t give up.”

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Comments

Comments 1 to 3:

  1. All nukes at any scale suffer from:

    1) solvable in principle but unsolved waste disposal in the US, 2) operational hazards due to operator error, 3) leakage of radioactives into the water supply due to maintenance failure, 4) the possibility of radioactive spills in transit, 5) the possibility of theft of fissionables to make a dirty bomb, 6) the possibility of theft of fissionables to make a nuclear bomb.

    All these issues will get much worse if we start to distribute lots of small reactors over the landscape. The resources of the companies involved will not be adequate to secure them, their operations or waste disposal.

    Waste disposal can be solved for a time by the right reprocessing and burial, as is going on in Sweden, Norway and France, but we have repeatedly failed to do this in the US for political reasons. Also we should be spending money to put together a reprocess that converts the fissionables and radioactives to safer isotopes using accelerators or nukes, powered by waste fuel and renewables, lowering required times of storage integrity.

    We should convert cooling from water to air. The technology exists and should be used as it is less prone to catastrophic failure. It would also free siting to be almost anywhere, not limited to vulnerable coastlines.

    Lots of mini-nukes is a bad idea. Put effort into improving what we have on a larger scale. If we build new large ones set the size to 500mwe or so and make them all to the same design to gain feature standardization, operating reliability and load following flexibility. Don't build mini-nukes.

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  2. Something on the alleged advantages of small modular reactors:

    www.energy.gov/ne/benefits-small-modular-reactors-smrs

     

    There do seem to be some moderate safety advantages in these reactors and they supposedly can't melt down. This is a big plus if it's correct, but I agree that with so many of these reactors you might end up with a proliferation of smaller but still troubling problems. It might be one step forwards and one step backwards.

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  3. Doing a little background reading on modular reactors I found this:

    "The Guardian reported in October 2018:22

    "Backers of mini nuclear power stations have asked for billions of pounds of taxpayers' money to build their first UK projects, according to an official document. … But the nuclear industry's claims that the mini plants would be a cheap option for producing low-carbon power appear to be undermined by the significant sums it has been asking of ministers.

    "Some firms have been calling for as much as £3.6bn to fund construction costs, according to a government-commissioned report, released under freedom of information rules. Companies also wanted up to £480m of public money to help steer their reactor designs through the regulatory approval process, which is a cost usually paid by nuclear companies. ...

    "David Lowry, a nuclear policy consultant who obtained the document, said: "SMRs are either old, discredited designs repackaged when companies see governments prepared to throw taxpayers' subsidies to support them, or are exotic new technologies, with decades of research needed before they reach commercial maturity.""

    The so-called Expert Finance Working Group on Small Nuclear Reactors in the UK laments "the financing sectors potential misunderstanding of nuclear specific risks and how such risks can be mitigated, and that nuclear specific risks aside, nuclear energy projects are no different to any other energy project."23 The finance sector might be in need of education on nuclear-specific risks, but its disinterest in SMRs suggests a clear understanding of the likelihood that they would be uneconomic."my emphasis source

    Nuclear reactors are not economic.  Baseload power will be of very low value is a renewable energy world.  Peak power on windless nights will be most valuable.  They do not address the lack of rare materials, like uranium, needed to produce a significant amount of nuclear power.  Most of the remaining problems in Abbott 2012 are also not addressed.  Without enormous government subsidies they cannot compete with renewables.

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