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Energy Roadmap and Small Modular Reactors

Today the Federal Minister for Energy Angus Taylor released an energy roadmap. Not only does the roadmap include an unfortunate “watching brief” on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) – it locks in no new emissions targets and doubles down on supporting and funding fossil fuels. Over 60 groups, representing millions of Australians, made a submission to the federal government calling for urgent action on climate change, supporting renewables and leaving nuclear at the door. The Minister has done the opposite.

Of deep concern is the signalling that the Government will review ‘impediments’ to their ‘stretch targets’ – which includes SMRs. The Ministers comments today about future regulatory changes to remove barriers signals an intent to remove the prohibition on nuclear power which is prudent and popular barrier to nuclear power and SMRs. See more about the risks to the nuclear power ban here Nuclear Ban.

Unsurprisingly the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) has welcomed the energy roadmap in a media release highlighting the mineral industries who will benefit from the energy roadmap. Including uranium, iron ore and bauxite, aluminium, copper, nickel, zinc, base metals, lithium, minerals sands, rare earths and others. The MCA commended the inclusion of SMRs suggesting they could be ready in the next decade for commercial deployment. The energy roadmap has diverted attention to SMRs which are expensive, would produce more nuclear waste per unit of energy, consume as much water per unit of energy as large nuclear reactors with many of the same problems and risks.

The truth about Small Modular Reactors

Adapted from Dr Jim Green.

SMRs would produce more nuclear waste per unit of energy produced compared to large reactors.

A 2016 European Commission document states: “Due to the loss of economies of scale, the decommissioning and waste management unit costs of SMR will probably be higher than those of a large reactor (some analyses state that between two and three times higher).”

The South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission report noted: “SMRs have lower thermal efficiency than large reactors, which generally translates to higher fuel consumption and spent fuel volumes over the life of a reactor.”

Every independent economic assessment finds that electricity from SMRs will be more expensive than that from large reactor.

SMRs will inevitably suffer from diseconomies of scale: a 250 MW SMR will generate 25% as much power as a 1,000 MW reactor  but it will require more than 25% of the material inputs and staffing, and a number of other costs including waste management and decommissioning will be proportionally higher.

A December 2019 report by CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator concluded that wind and solar power, including two to six hours of storage, is two to three times cheaper than power from small reactors per unit of energy produced. Nuclear lobbyists dispute the construction costs that underpin this estimate but, in fact, they are a neat fit with real-world construction costs (as opposed to self-serving industry speculation). Indeed the CSIRO/AEMO estimate is lower than the average cost of small-reactor projects in China, Russia and Argentina.

SMRs in China, Russia and Argentina are, respectively, 2, 4 and 23 times over-budget. None could be described as “very affordable”.

A handful of SMRs are under construction (half of them to power fossil fuel mining operations in the Arctic, the South China Sea and elsewhere).

Private sector investment has been pitiful and the main game is to find governments reckless enough to bet billions of taxpayer dollars on high-risk projects. SMRs under construction are all being built by government agencies.

In a 2017 Lloyd’s Register report based on the insights of almost 600 professionals and experts from utilities, distributors, operators and equipment manufacturers. They predict that SMRs have a “low likelihood of eventual take-up, and will have a minimal impact when they do arrive”.

A 2014 report produced by Nuclear Energy Insider, drawing on interviews with more than 50 “leading specialists and decision makers”, noted a “pervasive sense of pessimism” regarding SMRs.

SMRs will likely use as much water per unit of energy produced compared to large reactors ‒ possibly more due to lower thermal efficiencies. Nuclear power, large or small, is incredibly thirsty: a typical large reactor consumes 35‒65 million litres of water per day. Gas cooling creates its own set of problems and inefficiencies, leading to higher costs ‒ that is why a very large majority of reactors are water-cooled.

SMRs will be subject to the same risks as large reactors. Burying reactors below-grade would add a new set of problems for example:

“Potential fire and explosion hazards: below-grade facilities present unique challenges, such as smoke/fire behavior; life safety; design and operation of the HVAC [heating, ventilating, and air conditioning] system and removal of waste water. Potential flooding hazards: below-grade reactors and subsystems raise concerns with regard to hurricane storm surges, tsunami run-up and water infiltration into structures. Limited access for conducting inspections of pressure vessels and components that are crucial for containing radiation, such as welds, steam generators, bolted connections and valves.

identified by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

Rolls-Royce sharply reduced its small-reactor investment to “a handful of salaries” in 2018 and is threatening to abandon its R&D altogether unless the British government agrees to an outrageous set of demands and subsidies.

There are disturbing connections between small reactor projects and nuclear weapons proliferation. Rolls-Royce provides one example: part of the company’s sales pitch to the British government includes the argument that a civil small-reactor industry in the UK “would relieve the Ministry of Defence of the burden of developing and retaining skills and capability” for its weapons program.

No SMRs are being produced in an off-site factory. No such factories are being built. SMRs are at an early developmental stage. They are not a short-term proposition.

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