A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), entitled “Small Isn’t Always Beautiful”, points out that these small reactors will not be able to produce cheaper electricity, while maintaining the necessary safety.
Small nuclear reactors became quite popular in 2011-2012, as Fukushima disaster occurred, and at the same time gas prices dropped. This caused many people to lose trust in nuclear power, and vendors began to explore different options.
Edwin Lyman, the author of the report, concluded that a small reactor might be cheaper to build, however the final product would be much more prone to serious accidents and a subject to terrorist attacks. And yet, some utilities, in their search for a cheaper alternative or a fast solution to an energy deficiency problem, are inclined to invest in smaller projects.
The Department of Energy is currently providing grants to vendors, who are keen to develop commercial small reactors, and expects them to begin operation by 2022. According to Lyman, however, the low cost of the produced electricity will not be cost-competitive per kilowatt.
This report is not the first to point out the hidden dangers that small reactors pose. The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) produced another document last month, stating that these small reactors will require huge subsidies and numerous orders, so that the manufacturers can make profit.
Many vendors compromise on reactors’ safety. At the same time, they are demanding lowering of the requirements set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on emergency planning, control room staffing and security force staffing.
According to Lyman, such negotiations are done behind close doors, with the excuse that proprietary information has to be protected. The author also finds the reasoning of vendors that small reactors will cut costs, unjustified. Reduced costs ultimately means more defects in the modular construction, he states.
It might be possible for the manufacturers to really produce a small reactor that costs less and meet all safety requirements, however the industry is not there yet. It will require a lot more time, a lot more taxpayers money and much larger involvement of the DOE and the Congress.
Lyman states that the disaster in Fukushima should not be used as a reason for the industry to promote smaller reactors as safer because they require lower emergency planning zones. On the contrary, instead of NRC weakening safeguards to accommodate the new reactors, they should instead put safety issues first.