The trajectory of technology has often been a matter of density more than anything else. Given a certain amount of space, how much can we fit inside it? How can we make the components smaller with each iteration? The first computers filled several rooms and were far from efficient, but now a razor-thin laptop that fits into your backpack can run circles around the computers of thirty years ago. The same goes for your phones, your TVs, and your cameras. Technology has always played with the idea of doing more with less. Why would nuclear energy be any different?
From the United States to Russia to China and Canada, nuclear energy is beginning to make a resurgence but with one small change: the size. NuScale Power, an American energy company, formed in 2007, is at the forefront of this push, touting its patented small modular reactor (SMR) design, claiming it’s safer, cleaner, more cost-effective, and scalable than traditional reactors. Their website reads, “ Smarter, more cost-effective, and simplified, our advanced SMR design eliminates two-thirds of previously required safety systems and components found in today’s large reactors. This Triple Crown For Nuclear Plant Safety™ design safely shuts down and self-cools, indefinitely with no operator action, no AC or DC power, and no additional water. This is a first for commercial nuclear power.” The company is planning on deploying these new SMR reactors in groups of 4,6, and 12, but realistically, 125 of these SMR NuScale reactors could fit inside a traditional reactor’s containment building.
NuScale submitted its first SMR Design Certification Application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a US independent regulatory agency that oversees safety and regulation regarding nuclear energy. The company’s application consisted of over 12,000 pages of technical information, and a final report from the NRC approving NuScale’s SMR design came this past August. The first slated project for NuScale will be a 12-module power plant built at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and would be owned by the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) as part of its Carbon Free Power Project (CFPP). This first plant would be fully operational by 2030 at the latest.
There are still many factors in play, and perhaps none has influenced the feasibility of nuclear energy more than cost-effectiveness. Traditional reactors often get mired in substantial upfront costs and ballooning budgetary issues. Even the first SMR design commissioned in the late 1950s overran its almost ten million dollar budget, lasting only three-and-a-half years before being shut down. Additionally, the cost of other renewable energy sources like wind and solar have only plummeted in recent years, making the deficit between nuclear and other alternatives starker.
Nevertheless, countries and companies worldwide are forging ahead in finding how a cost-effective, safe version of nuclear energy at scale could work. For many, a workable nuclear solution is existential. Last year, Daniel Poneman, writing for Scientific American, conveyed this sentiment, “ Even if all nations achieved 100 percent of the reductions they pledged in Paris, the world would not come anywhere near the goal of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels, much less the 1.5-degree target that scientists say we must achieve if we are, for example, to save the earth’s coral reefs…the International Energy Agency has concluded that meeting the goal of 2 degrees C will require doubling nuclear power’s contribution to global energy consumption by mid-century. Late last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reached a similar conclusion: in most scenarios consistent with the target of 1.5 degrees C, nuclear energy would have to more than double.”
Combatting climate change will be a vast undertaking, no matter how humanity decides to tackle the issue. If the right investments are made to make nuclear technology smaller and cheaper, it does seem rash to write off what could be a clean energy workhorse. Solar and wind energy were a dream until massive investment caused the costs of installing and running the required technology to drop precipitously. SMR nuclear plants present an intriguing development in nuclear energy that could jumpstart the world’s energy potential.
Originally published at https://robertpotter.co on November 21, 2020.