It was once known by one of the most inadvertently appropriate acronyms ever, WPPSS, the Washington Public Power Supply System. “Whoops!,” as they called it, in the early 1980s brought on what was then the worst municipal bond default in U.S. history trying to build five nuclear reactors in Washington state at once, completing only one.
But faith in the nuclear future lives on at “Whoops!,” today rebranded as Energy Northwest. On April 1, the day perhaps also inadvertently fitting, the consortium of Washington state public utilities announced a move aimed at the first advanced nuclear reactor deployment in the U.S. Energy Northwest will partner with Grant County Public Utility District, a member utility serving a desert county in the center of the state, and X-energy, a leading developer of the nuclear industry’s bright shining hope, the small modular reactor (SMR).
“The partners will collaborate and share resources to evaluate their mutual goal of siting, building, and operating a Xe-100 advanced nuclear power plant at an existing Energy Northwest site north of Richland, with the potential to generate up to 320 megawatts of reliable, carbon-free energy,” they announced. “Through the TRi Energy Partnership, the parties will evaluate each step of the project and identify the best approach to licensing, permitting, construction, operation, and ownership.”
NUCLEAR POWER: TWO WAVES OF FAILURE
That site is Columbia Station on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the Central Washington desert, the sole reactor completed after radical cost overruns forced abandonment of four other projects mid-stream. The never-used Satsop project cooling tower on the highway from the state capital of Olympia to the Pacific coast stands as a monument to the failed project. The business park that has taken over the site has offered it as a movie set.
I was up close and personal to the WPPSS failure, a reporter covering the Okanogan County Public Utility District from 1979-81. The board chair, an apple orchardist named Nick Cain, also happened to be the WPPSS chair. The WPPSS board was composed of nuclear true believers such as Cain, farmers and small-town business owners who in postmortems were widely judged to have gotten in over their heads, snookered by nuclear contractors who sucked their utilities dry. Costs ballooned to $23.9 billion from an original estimate of $4.5 billion, resulting in cancellations in 1982. The $2.25 billion default led to court cases and a new $450 million bond which was putting a dent in ratepayer bills decades later.
The WPPSS default was part of the first wave of nuclear failures in the U.S. In the wake of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, approximately 100 proposed nuclear plants were cancelled. Recent years have seen a second round of failures. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 put $25 billion in nuclear subsidies on the table. That jumpstarted all of four nuclear reactors, two each in Georgia and South Carolina. The only way Wall Street would touch the projects was to make ratepayers carry the risk by paying for “work in progress” before the first watt is delivered. South Carolina ratepayers won’t even see that. Cost overruns killed the project there in 2017 after $9 billion was thrown away, setting up a political and court fight over whether ratepayers will continue to be soaked. The last two standing, Georgia’s Vogtle plants, were to have cost $14 billion and come on line in 2016-17. Now costs have doubled to $28 billion and scheduled completion this year and next is considered unlikely.
IS THE SMR A SOLUTION?
SMRs are the nuclear industry’s answer to avoid such failures in the future. Instead of being custom-built and individually licensed, SMRs are intended to cut costs by licensing a single design manufactured at a plant and sent for final assembly to their operating site. Smaller than the 1,000-megawatt-plus plants with which we’re familiar, SMRs are 100 MW or less, and designed with safety features to prevent meltdowns such as experienced at Japan’s Fukushima plant in 2011. Though there are questions about that, as covered below.
X-energy’s proposed plant is 80 MW. The Washington partnership envisions clustering four to make a 320-MW complex, with costs estimated at $2.4 billion. Half is to come from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), and half from private investors, apparently leaving ratepayers out of the picture this time.
ARDP in 2020 made two $80 million grants to advanced nuclear reactor developers, one to X-energy, and the other to TerraPower, a venture in which Bill Gates has invested. The latter, slated to be 345 MW, aims at eventual scales as large as today’s plants, so it is not an SMR. The TerraPower liquid-sodium cooled reactor concept has its own set of issues. Liquid-sodium reactors have suffered operating difficulties and fires, and pose potential weapons proliferation hazards. The Raven will look at TerraPower in a future post.
CAN THE SMR SAVE THE CLIMATE?
For now, the question is whether SMRs such as X-energy’s can really revive the nuclear industry, and most importantly, provide a climate solution with low-carbon electrical power in a meaningful timeframe. The answer, by simple logic, is no.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that heat-trapping carbon pollution must decline by around half by 2030 to have a reasonable chance of staying under the 1.5°C heating limit needed to avert the worst consequences of climate disruption. And even that comes with serious impacts, which become much worse if temperatures escalate to 2°C. With costs for solar and wind energy as well as battery storage coming down to levels competitive or cheaper than fossil fuel equivalents, the greatest opportunity for the deep carbon cuts needed this decade is in the electrical sector. Transportation and industry pose tougher problems.
Though deep carbon cuts must start quickly, the Washington state partnership gives a completion date for its SMR pilot project as 2027-28. Considering the nuclear industry’s track record, delays and cost overruns are likely. And that would only be the beginning of a long-process to create the entire manufacturing supply chain needed to make SMRs an economical alternative. If they can be. The key issue is economies of scale.
“Power generation scales on volume of the reactor vessels,” notes Arjun Makhijani, who has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, with a specialization in nuclear fusion, from the University of California at Berkeley. “The materials and labor scale more slowly. That’s a basic reason that there are economies of scale and big reactors were built.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) cites a study which shows that a reactor with 1,100 MW capacity would cost three times as much to build as a 180 MW plant, but produce six times the electricity, “so the capital cost per kilowatt would be twice as great for the smaller plant.”
SMRs lose those economies of scale, but proponents hope to make that up with mass manufacturing and licensing, avoiding costs of custom-built plants.
ROCKY ROAD TO MASS PRODUCTION
“The road to such mass manufacturing will be rocky,” Makhijani and M.V. Ramana write in a recent article, “Why Small Modular Reactors Won’t Help Counter the Climate Crisis.” “Even with optimistic assumptions about how quickly manufacturers could learn to improve production efficiency and lower cost, thousands of SMRs, which will all be higher priced in comparison to large reactors, would have to be manufactured for the price per kilowatt for an SMR to be comparable to that of a large reactor.”
That sets up “a chicken-and-egg economic problem,” they write. “Without the factories, SMRs can never hope to achieve the theoretical cost reductions that are at the heart of the strategy to compensate for the lack of economies of scale. But without the cost reductions, there will not be the large number of orders to stimulate the investments needed to set up the supply chain in the first place.”
That is leaving aside the prospect of a design defect being discovered after many SMRs have been deployed. In the 1990s, multiple Westinghouse-built reactors suffered common steam generator problems, resulting in lawsuits. “If an error in a mass-manufactured reactor were to result in safety problems, the whole lot might have to be recalled, as was the case with the Boeing 737 Max and 787 Dreamliner jetliners,” Makhijani and Ramana write. “But how does one recall a radioactive reactor? What will happen to an electricity system that relies on factory-made identical reactors that need to be recalled?”
The economic hurdles of SMRs posed by its competitors are overwhelming.
“Lazard, a Wall Street financial advisory firm, estimates the cost of utility-scale solar and wind to be about $40 per megawatt-hour,” Makhijani and Ramana write. “The corresponding figure for nuclear is four times as high, about $160 per MWh – a difference that is more than enough to use complementary technologies, such as demand response and storage, to compensate for the intermittency of solar and wind.”
While costs for competitors declines, nuclear costs continue to escalate. Cost for a proposed Idaho project by NuScale, another SMR developer, has doubled from an estimated $3 billion in 2015 to $6.1 billion in 2020 “long before any concrete has been poured,” Makhijani and Ramana note.
SKIPPING A VITAL STEP
The ARDP demonstration program requires that advanced reactors be licensed and fully operational in seven years. But fast-tracking commercialization skips a vital step, development of prototypes as has been required of new reactor designs in the past.
Explains UCS, “At a minimum, commercial deployment in the 2020s would require bypassing two developmental stages that are critical for assuring safety and reliability: the demonstration of prototype reactors at reduced scale and at full scale. Prototype reactors are typically needed for demonstrating performance and conducting safety and fuel testing to address knowledge gaps in new reactor designs. Prototypes also may have additional safety features and instrumentation not included in the basic design, as well as limits on operation that would not apply to commercial units.”
UCS notes that the Department of Energy in 2017 said that designs such as X-energy’s were mature enough to not require a prototyping stage. Even then, it projected a 13-15-year track to commercialization. UCS said that even if the ARDP seven-year “deadline can be met and the reactors work reliably, subsequent commercial units likely would not be ordered before the early 2030s . . . But by skipping prototype testing and proceeding directly to commercial units, these projects may run not only the risk of experiencing unanticipated reliability problems, but also the risk of suffering serious accidents that could endanger public health and safety.”
UCS recommends suspending the ARDP demonstration program until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission evaluates whether new designs are mature enough to license without the prototype stage. “Without such an evaluation, the NRC will likely lack the information necessary to ensure safe, secure operation of these reactors.”
SAFETY AND WASTE REMAIN CONCERNS
X-energy employs pebble bed reactor (PBR) technology. The pebbles, known as TRISO fuel, are billiard-size balls that wrap nuclear fuel in carbon. They are fed into a sphere where the nuclear reaction takes place and is kept in the proper temperature range by gas coolants – in X-energy’s case helium – rather than water. In an accident, the reactor is supposed to cool itself down. UCS calls that into question.
TRISO balls “retain radioactive fission products up to about 1,600°C if a loss-of-coolant accident occurs,” UCS notes. “However, if the fuel heats up above that temperature – as it could in the Xe-100 – its release of fission products speeds up significantly. So, while TRISO has some safety benefits, the fuel is far from meltdown-proof, as some claim. Indeed, a recent TRISO fuel irradiation test in the Advanced Test Reactor in Idaho had to be terminated prematurely when the fuel began to release fission products at a rate high enough to challenge off-site radiation dose limits.”
UCS says accidents could also be caused by air and water leakage into the reactor, as well as glitches in fuel feeding. Balls are continually cycled in and out. At a German PBR, 200 balls were found wedged in a crack after it was shut down in 1988. The installation was also plagued with radiation leaks within its containment and water and soil outside of it. By some measures, it is the most contaminated nuclear site in the world. Another prospective hazard is that the carbon coating might catch on fire, as it did at the full-sized Windscale Plant in 1957, the worst nuclear accident U.K. history.
UCS raises one additional safety concern: “The performance of TRISO fuel also depends critically on the ability to consistently manufacture fuel to exacting specifications, which has not been demonstrated.”
Even if all those concerns were met, the dogged problem of nuclear waste disposal remains. PBRs, in fact, “generate a much larger volume of highly radioactive waste,” UCS says. They are no more efficient uranium burners than standard reactors, and add a carbon element which is in itself a waste challenge. The U.S. still lacks a long-term nuclear waste repository, with efforts at Yucca Mountain in Nevada stalled. So virtually every operating or former nuclear plant site, many on rivers or oceans, is a waste site. SMRs potentially multiple the number of plant sites and waste dumps.
THE UNSOLVABLE PROBLEMS: NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION AND TERRORISM
IF SMRs could be deployed economically in a reasonable time, with all safety and waste issues resolved, one problem would remain inherently unsolvable. It is a problem that confronts all nuclear power technologies. Put simply, the fuel is also the stuff of which nuclear bombs are made. Today’s nuclear reactors require fuel enriched to no more than 5% uranium-235. Weapons require 90%. Enrichment technology can be repurposed to make bombs, which is why the U.S. and Israel object to Iran’s enrichment program. Waste can be reprocessed into fissile material. The standard light-water reactor generates enough to make 20-30 Hiroshima-size nukes annually. That is how North Korea makes its bombs.
PBRs use a more highly enriched fuel known as high-assay low enriched uranium (HALEU) which amps U-235 to 10-20%. The X-energy technology employs 15.5% HALEU. The fuel “poses a greater security risk” than lower grades used by standard reactors, UCS says, “and TRISO fuel fabrication is more challenging to monitor than LWR fuel fabrication. Also, it is difficult to accurately account for nuclear material at pebble-bed HTGRs because fuel is continually fed into and removed from the reactor as it operates.”
While fuel cycle and reactor installations in nuclear weapons states such as the U.S. and France are well monitored, producers intend to export new technologies worldwide. The International Atomic Energy Agency monitors proliferation hazards. Thousands of small SMRs with accompanying fuel cycle installations would multiply the challenges.
Finally, another unsolvable problem, nuclear plants of any size can be attacked by terrorists. SMRs multiply the potential number of targets.
Put it all together, and UCS rates the Xe-100 reactor the Energy Northwest partnership wants to deploy in the Central Washington desert as “moderately worse” than standard reactors for nuclear proliferation and terrorist threats.
WE DON’T NEED NUCLEAR
The world is running out of time to address all the concerns facing SMRs and advanced reactor designs in general.
“If you look at the cold facts from a climate point of view we have a shortage of time and money. New reactors cannot help materially,” Makhijani told The Raven. “How are we going to have a carbon-free electricity system by 2035 in which SMRs will play a significant role when the first one isn’t even supposed to come on line till the late 2020s? Those who are advocating new nuclear reactors should address the time constraint, and whether we can do it without nuclear. If we could not do it without, that would be another question. But we can. So there should be no question.”
Many studies document the capacity of wind and solar to replace fossil fuel electricity. The challenge of varying sunlight and wind speeds is met with a smart grid that can adjust energy demand to available supply and link diverse geographies. So when the wind is blowing on the Great Plains, it can supply juice while clouds block sunlight in Chicago. For times when none of that is sufficient, storage in many forms can be used, from batteries to pumped storage reservoirs. Even household water heaters. If all else fails, backup generators fueled with stored hydrogen can be brought into play. Hydrogen can be electrolyzed from water through solar and wind energy that would otherwise go unused because generation exceeds the demands of the grid.
Mark Jacobson of Stanford has done many studies documenting the capacity of wind, water and solar to meet all energy needs. A NOAA study showed carbon pollution from electricity could be cut up to 80% from 1990 levels by 2030, largely with wind and solar, needing no new nuclear and energy storage, while actually cutting electricity costs. That would require building a continental grid with efficient high-voltage DC lines to link diverse geographies. A study done by Makhijani for the Institute for Environmental and Energy Research, of which he is president, lays out a path to zero carbon electricity in Maryland.
Despite towering obstacles facing SMRs, from economic chicken-and-egg problems of ramping up production, to unsolved waste and proliferation issues, to remaining safety questions, the nuclear faithful at Energy Northwest soldier on. Yes, they now have operated a nuclear plant successfully since the 1980s, though questions have been raised about earthquake hazards in light of emerging seismic knowledge. Washington state has enacted a goal of 100% clean electricity by 2045, and nuclear advocates see it filling a role. In any event, new nuclear power from SMRs will be incapable of supplying a significant portion of low-carbon energy until well into the 2030s, even if economic and other issues are resolved.
All that time, any new nuclear reactors will be facing continuing cost declines in wind, solar and storage, as well as increasing deployment of smart grid technologies and advanced long-distance power transmission. If the Washington state partnership’s SMR installation actually is built and operated, with the 2027-8 timeline likely to be stretched out and the projected $2.4 billion cost figure likely to be exceeded, it could well be a costly white elephant, a relic of faith in a technology whose time has passed. The critical need for deep carbon pollution reductions this decade calls on us to focus on the low-carbon technologies we have now. And those are wind and solar. SMRs will be a dollar short and a day too late. They cannot meet critical climate deadlines, not by 2030 or 2035, and likely never.