NuScale refutes SMR critics

2013-08-09T09:30:00Z NuScale refutes SMR criticsBy Bennett Hall, Corvallis Gazette-Times Corvallis Gazette Times

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 or 541-758-9529.


Reporter Bennett Hall can be contacted at 541-758-9529 or

Copyright 2015 Corvallis Gazette Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(4) Comments

  1. George
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    George - August 15, 2013 11:43 am

    Yes a ccgt would be a much better investment than the SMR proposed by NuScale in strictly financial terms. But there will undoubtedly be a market for technologies that
    a) are emission free
    b) provide fuel savings and can hedge against potential volatility in fossil fuel markets

    These nuclear companies aren't launching these designs with the hopes that they can compete with the historically low prices of natural gas in the near term, in fact this design isn't likely to be licensed constructed and operational for another decade. Instead these SMRs will help states and utilities meet emissions requirements, and in a 60 year operating life could in fact prove to be more economcial than natural gas in the long run.

    Factory assembled and inherently safe small reactors that avoid the primary problems of past reactors (construction delays, capital cost, and safety) seem like a pretty daamn practical idea to me.
  2. Keller
    Report Abuse
    Keller - August 10, 2013 8:42 am
    The vast majority of coal power plants are large due to economies of scale.

    Natural gas pipelines are extensive and are generally not that far away from coal plants. A 45 megawatt replacement (or more likely a number of modules) for a coal plant simply cannot compete with the installed cost of a new combined-cycle power plant. That is precisely why so many combined-cycle power plants are being built (including to replace retiring coal plants).

    Natural gas is plentiful, cheap and reasonably stable in price - look at a price trend over the last 50 years.

    If one wanted to power a factory, put in a small co-generation gas turbine - which is frequently done. The capital cost of an SMR could not possibly be a good business decision because the return on the investment is extremely poor (likely non-existent).

    A combination of renewable power and diesel engine power plants is a better fit for islands. If you live in remote parts of Alaska (which means not much population), a small nuclear power plant could never be cost effective (how do the small number of people ever afford it?).

    You can only replace water in the pool if you have adequate reserves. Break open the reactor vessel and the pool of water is very rapidly depleted.

    With the exception of Chernobyl, nuclear accidents have little dire health consequences to the public. The real problem is the catastrophic financial impact.

    Economics is the "Achilles-heal" of nuclear power, particularly in the US where we have a number of much more cost effective energy options.

    As to the lads in Vermont, there are vast amounts of power (particularly hydro-electric) right over the border in Canada. Incidentally, New York state has vast amounts of shale gas which will be tapped as the financial health of the state continues to deteriorate.
  3. Pro Nuclear
    Report Abuse
    Pro Nuclear - August 10, 2013 3:21 am
    @ Keller.
    Yes, a combustion turbine could be installed quite quickly and for a few months would produce less expensive electricity IF the need for the electricity was in a place where a NG pipeline happen to be installed. For most of the retiring coal plants this is not the case. For the Islands in the Pacific this is not the case. For Cities in Alaska this is not the case.

    You would not be stark raving made to try to replace 60 year old coal plants with new nuclear plants. The "low" price of NG is only where the pipes can reach and only a temporary situation. When the price is lower than the cost of extraction the price is sure to rise! Which is the case today.

    45 MW is enough to power many small communities up to 30,000 people. It can power fairly large factories. The cost of fuel will be constant and once the plant is paid for the cost of electricity from the plant will be very inexpensive. Is it wrong to install a plant that will give a steady cost for electric for decades to come or to install a plant that will give a constantly varying cost over it's whole life? Look at the spot prices in Vermont!

    Your assumption that the pool of water will be slowly depleted is a strange one. Why would the pool not be made up with replacement water?

    Also, your assumption that the pool could fail catastrophically is not reasonable with the level of engineering that has to go into these sites. Fukushima failed slowly and with enough time for people to react to the slowly changing situation. With all the natural destruction around there was still NO ONE KILLED. No one will be killed. The protection systems work correctly and are working correctly.
  4. Keller
    Report Abuse
    Keller - August 09, 2013 7:28 pm
    45 megawatts output is really small for a power plant. Could install an LM6000 combustion turbine at a mere fraction of the cost of the SMR and do so in a few months. Therein lies the rub.

    The best value is a combined-cycle power plant. It's not even a contest.

    At today's natural gas prices (which will be here for some many years), there is no way you can justify to the ratepayers the vastly higher costs of the SMR when viewed in the competitive arena of the US power market. You'd have to be stark raving made to even try it. Ten years down the road, might be different.

    As far as the IEER folks are concerned, they do raise a number of thorny issues.

    Strikes me that a weak-link in the NuScale design is the assumption that the pool of water the reactor vessel sits in will always be there or at least will only be slowly depleted. Related to that is what happens if the vessel catastrophically fails? Please note: these are pretty remote events. I suspect the folks in Japan thought a tsunami would not cause several reactors to melt down nor did the Russians ever imagine one of their reactors would ever blow-up. The point is, perhaps the NuScale design needs some form of mostly passive backup (e.g. large geo-tech membrane lined pond adjacent to the plant) in their back-pocket to deal with the completely unanticipated and unforeseen rapid loss of water in the pool the vessel sits-in. Better-to-have-and-not-need than need-and-not-have (old Kansas farmer observation).
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