Corvallis company denies claims that small modular reactors are unsafe and uneconomical
NuScale Power fired back Thursday against a Washington, D.C., think tank that is challenging cost and safety claims made by NuScale and other companies attempting to commercialize small, modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs.
The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, which advocates a nuclear-free energy system, published a report Thursday that questions “the economy of small” that SMR proponents say makes their designs financially viable as well as the notion that their simplified construction is inherently safer than large, complex reactors.
“SMRs are a poor bet to solve nuclear power’s problems, and we see many troubling ways in which SMRs might actually make the nuclear power industry’s current woes even worse,” IEER President Arjun Makhijani said in a statement that accompanied the report’s release.
But Mike McGough, chief commercial officer of Corvallis-based NuScale, defended his company’s reactor design and business model.
“We have the safest plant ever designed, and we’ve been testing it and proving it for 10 years,” he said.
McGough called the IEER report “a disappointing but not unexpected attack,” adding that the organization is “funded to be against anything to do with nuclear energy.”
SMR proponents say their smaller reactors will be cheaper to build because they can be assembled in a factory. That also provides flexibility for utilities that want to build nuclear generating stations in small, isolated markets.
But the IEER report challenges those assumptions.
Setting up a supply chain will be hard, the report claims, requiring massive investment in equipment that manufacturers will be reluctant to make until they have lots of orders — orders won’t come in until manufacturing lines are established.
Because of that chicken-and-egg conundrum, setting up the supply chain will either require enormous government subsidies (on top of the more than $500 billion already committed by the U.S. Department of Energy) or will wind up someplace like China, where much of the current demand for reactor construction resides.
“SMRs are being promoted vigorously in the wake of the failure of the much-vaunted nuclear renaissance,” Makhijani said. “But SMRs don’t actually reduce the financial risk, they increase it, transferring it form the reactor purchaser to the manufacturing supply chain.”
Those claims are off the mark, McGough said.
He said U.S. companies already possess the manufacturing capacity to build SMR modules, though not in large volumes. However, he argued, as NuScale and its rivals achieve government certification for their designs, manufacturers will see the business opportunity in expanding their plants, even without federal subsidies.
NuScale estimates its SMR design would cost about $5,000 per kilowatt of generating capacity to build — substantially less than the $7,000 to $8,000 per kilowatt of today’s full-scale nukes.
“He’s completely missing the point,” McGough said. “Manufacturing those components in a factory has tremendous economic advantages.”
The report raises safety concerns as well.
NuScale and other SMR developers tout passive safety features, such as the use of natural convection currents instead of electric pumps to circulate cooling water and the placement of self-contained reactor modules inside underground pools.
But Makhijani argues that even passive circulation requires valves that have to work properly to keep the radioactive core from overheating. He also claims that installing reactor modules underground can leave them vulnerable to flooding or other natural hazards.
McGough hotly disputes those claims.
NuScale’s patented safety system has just five valves, he said, all designed to default to the safe position in the event of a power failure, ensuring that water continues to cool the core via convection, conduction and gravity.
“He either doesn’t understand our plant or he chooses to ignore what he does understand,” McGough said.
He also claims the plant’s design — with the sealed containment vessels suspended inside a pool of water within the operating bay — is robust enough to withstand natural disasters.
“The containment vessel can’t be cracked by either a flood or an earthquake,” he insisted. “The pool of water acts as a giant shock absorber.”
The report also notes that some of the cost reductions associated with small modular reactors come from proposed changes to nuclear safety rules, including smaller emergency planning zones around generating plants and reduced operating personnel requirements.
But McGough responded that SMR plants are much smaller than traditional nukes, making a smaller safety zone appropriate. And because of NuScale’s simplified design and passive safety features, he said the company’s plan to rely on six control room operators is more than adequate.
Finally, the IEER report claims that SMRs would increase the risk of nuclear proliferation. Having lots of small nuclear plants scattered in remote locations around the world, the argument goes, could make it easier for terrorists or rogue nations to acquire radioactive material for weapons production.
McGough countered that NuScale is not in business to sell reactors to politically unstable countries and that, in any case, SMRs contain only a fraction of the fissile material found in full-scale nuke plants.
On top of all that, he pointed out that NuScale’s design has built-in security features.
“It’s installed underground, underwater,” McGough said. “It’s really, really hard to get to.”
Contact reporter Bennett Hall at email@example.com or 541-758-9529.