The Forever Dangers of Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

Image Source: U.S. Government Accountability Office – Public Domain

If you didn’t know better, you’d think Lloyd Marbet was a dairy farmer or maybe a retired shop teacher. His beard is thick, soft, and gray, his hair pulled back in a small ponytail. In his mid-seventies, he still towers over nearly everyone. His handshake is firm, but there’s nothing menacing about him. He lumbers around like a wise, old hobbling tortoise.

We’re standing in the deco lobby of the historic Kiggins Theater in downtown Vancouver, Washington, about to view a screening of Atomic Bamboozle, a remarkable new documentary by filmmaker Jan Haaken that examines the latest push for atomic power and a nuclear “renaissance” in the Pacific Northwest. Lloyd, a Vietnam veteran, is something of an environmental folk hero in these parts, having led the early 1990s effort to shut down Oregon’s infamous Trojan Nuclear Plant. He’s also one of the unassuming stars of a film that highlights his critical role in that successful Trojan takedown and his continued opposition to nuclear technology.

I’ve always considered Lloyd an optimist, but this evening I sense a bit of trepidation.

“It concerns me greatly that this fight isn’t over yet,” he tells me in his deep baritone. He’s been at this for years and now helps direct the Oregon Conservancy Foundation, which promotes renewable energy, even as he continues to oppose nuclear power. “We learned a lot from Trojan, but that was a long time ago and this is a new era, and many people aren’t aware of the history of nuclear power and the anti-nuclear movement.”

The new push for atomic energy in the Pacific Northwest isn’t just coming from the well-funded nuclear industry, their boosters at the Department of Energy, or billionaires like Bill Gates. It’s also echoing in the mainstream environmental movement among those who increasingly view the technology as a potential climate savior.

In a recent interview with ABC News, Bill Gates couldn’t have been more candid about why he’s embraced the technology of so-called small modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs. “Nuclear energy, if we do it right, will help us solve our climate goals,” he claimed. As it happens, he’s also invested heavily in an “advanced” nuclear power start-up company, TerraPower, based up in Bellevue, Washington, which is hoping to build a small 345-megawatt atomic power reactor in rural Kemmerer, Wyoming.

The nuclear industry is banking on a revival and placing its bets on SMRs like those proposed by the Portland, Oregon-based NuScale Power Corporation, whose novel 60-megawatt SMR design was approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2022. While the underlying physics is the same as all nuclear power plants, SMRs are easier to build and safer to run than the previous generation of nuclear facilities — or so go the claims of those looking to profit from them.

NuScale’s design acceptance was a first in this country where 21 SMRs are now in the development stage. Such facilities are being billed as innovative alternatives to the hulking commercial reactors that average one gigawatt of energy output per year and take decades and billions of dollars to construct. If SMRs can be brought online quickly, their sponsors claim, they will help mitigate carbon emissions because nuclear power is a zero-emissions energy source.

Never mind that it’s not, since nuclear power plants produce significant greenhouse gas emissions from uranium mining to plant construction to waste disposal. Life cycle analyses of carbon emissions from different energy sources find that, when every stage is taken into account, nuclear energy actually has a carbon footprint similar to, if not larger than, natural gas plants, almost double that of wind energy, and significantly more than solar power.

“SMRs are no longer an abstract concept,” Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Kathryn Huff, a leading nuclear advocate who has the ear of the Biden administration, insisted. “They are real and they are ready for deployment thanks to the hard work of NuScale, the university community, our national labs, industry partners, and the NRC. This is innovation at its finest and we are just getting started here in the U.S.!”

A Risky (and Expensive) Business

Even though Huff claims that SMRs are “ready for deployment,” that’s hardly the case. NuScale’s initial SMR design, under development in Idaho, won’t actually be operable until at least 2029 after clearing more NRC regulatory hurdles. The scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are already calling for fossil-fuel use to be cut by two-thirds over the next 10 years to transition away from carbon-intensive energy, a schedule that, if kept, such small reactors won’t be able to speed up.

And keep in mind that the seemingly prohibitive costs of the SMRs are a distinct problem. NuScale’s original estimate of $55-$58 per megawatt-hour for a proposed project in Utah — already higher than wind and solar which come in at around $50 per megawatt-hour — has recently skyrocketed to $89 per megawatt-hour. And that’s after a $4 billion investment in such energy by U.S. taxpayers, which will cover 43% of the cost of the construction of such plants. This is based on strikingly rosy, if not unrealistic, projections. After all, nuclear power in the U.S. currently averages around $373 per megawatt-hour.

And as the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis put it:

“[N]o one should fool themselves into believing this will be the last cost increase for the NuScale/UAMPS SMR. The project still needs to go through additional design, licensing by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, construction, and pre-operational testing. The experience of other reactors has repeatedly shown that further significant cost increases and substantial schedule delays should be anticipated at any stages of project development.”

Here in the Pacific Northwest, NuScale faces an additional obstacle that couldn’t be more important: What will it do with all the noxious waste such SMRs are certain to produce? In 1980, Oregon voters overwhelmingly passed Measure 7, a landmark ballot initiative that halted the construction of new nuclear power plants until the federal government established a permanent site to store spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive waste. Also included in Measure 7 was a provision that made all new Oregon nuclear plants subject to voter approval. Forty-three years later, no such repository for nuclear waste exists anywhere in the United States, which has prompted corporate lobbyists for the nuclear industry to push several bills that would essentially repeal that Oregon law.

NuScale, no fan of Measure 7, has decided to circumvent it by building its SMRs across the Columbia River in Washington, a state with fewer restrictions. There, Clark County is, in its own fashion, beckoning the industry by putting $200,000 into a feasibility study to see if SMRs could “benefit the region.” There’s another reason NuScale is eyeing the Columbia River corridor: its plants will need water. Like all commercial nuclear facilities, SMRs must be kept cool so they don’t overheat and melt down, creating little Chernobyls. In fact, being “light-water” reactors, the company’s SMRs will require a continuous water supply to operate correctly.

Like other nuclear reactors, SMRs will utilize fission to make heat, which in turn will be used to generate electricity. In the process, they will also produce a striking amount of waste, which may be even more challenging to deal with than the waste from traditional reactors. At the moment, NuScale hopes to store the nasty stuff alongside the gunk that the Trojan Nuclear Plant produces in big dry casks by the Columbia River in Oregon, near the Pacific Ocean.

As with all the waste housed at various nuclear sites nationwide, Trojan’s casks are anything but a permanent solution to the problem of such waste. After all, plutonium garbage will be radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Typically enough, even though it’s no longer operating, Trojan still remains a significant risk as it sits near the Cascadia Subduction Zone, where a “megathrust” earthquake is expected someday to violently shake the region and drown it in a gigantic flood of seawater. If that were to happen, much of Oregon’s coastline would be devastated, including the casks holding Trojan’s deadly rubbish. The last big quake of this sort hit the area more than 300 years ago, but it’s just a matter of time before another Big One strikes — undoubtedly, while the radioactive waste in those dry casks is still life-threatening.

Nuclear expert M. V. Ramana, a soft-spoken but authoritative voice in Jan Haaken’s Atomic Bamboozle documentary, put it this way to me:

“The industry’s plans for SMR waste are no different from their plans for radioactive waste from older reactors, which is to say that they want to find some suitable location and a community that is willing to accept the risk of future contamination and bury the waste underground.

“But there is a catch [with SMR’s waste]. Some of these proposed SMR designs use fuel with materials that are chemically difficult to deal with. The sodium-cooled reactor design proposed by Bill Gates would have to figure out how to manage the sodium. Because sodium does not behave well in the presence of water and all repositories face the possibility of water seeping into them, the radioactive waste generated by such designs would have to be processed to remove the sodium. This is unlike the fleet of reactors [currently in operation].”

Other troubles exist, too, explains Ramana. One, in particular, is deeply concerning: the waste from SMRs, like the waste produced in all nuclear plants, could lead to the proliferation of yet more atomic weaponry.

Nuclear Hot Links

As the pro-military Atlantic Council explained in a 2019 report on the deep ties between nuclear power and nuclear weapons in this country:

“The civilian nuclear power sector plays a crucial role in supporting U.S. national security goals. The connectivity of the civilian and military nuclear value chain — including shared equipment, services, and human capital — has created a mutually reinforcing feedback loop, wherein a robust civilian nuclear industry supports the nuclear elements of the national security establishment.”

In fact, governments globally, from France to Pakistan, the United States to China, have a strategic incentive to keep tabs on their nuclear energy sectors, not just for potential accidents but because nuclear waste can be utilized in making nuclear weapons.

Spent fuel, or the waste that’s left over from the fission process, comes out scalding hot and highly radioactive. It must be quickly cooled in pools of water to avoid the possibility of a radioactive meltdown. Since the U.S. has no repository for spent fuel, all this waste has to stay put — first in pools for at least a year or more and then in dry casks where air must be constantly circulated to keep the spent fuel from causing mayhem.

The United States already has a troubling and complicated nuclear-waste problem, which worsens by the day. Annually, the U.S. produces 2,000 metric tons of spent fuel from its commercial nuclear reactors. With the present push to build more plants, including SMRs, spent fuel will only be on the rise. Worse yet, as Ramana points out, SMRs are going to produce more of this incendiary waste per unit of electricity because they will prove less efficient than larger reactors. And therein lies the problem, not just because the amount of radioactive waste the country doesn’t truly know how to deal with will increase, but because more waste means more fuel for nukes.

As Ramana explains:

“When uranium fuel is irradiated in a reactor, the uranium-238 isotope absorbs neutrons and [transmutes] into plutonium-239. This plutonium is in the spent fuel that is discharged by the reactor but can be separated from the rest of the uranium and other chemicals in the irradiated fuel through a chemical process called reprocessing. Once it is separated, plutonium can be used in nuclear weapons. Even though there are technical differences between different kinds of nuclear reactors, all reactors, including SMRs, can be used to make nuclear weapons materials… Any country that acquires a nuclear reactor automatically enhances its ability to make nuclear weapons. Whether it does so or not is a matter of choice.”

Ramana is concerned for good reason. France, as he points out, has Europe’s largest arsenal of nuclear warheads, and its atomic weapons industry is deeply tied to its “peaceful” nuclear energy production. “Without civilian nuclear energy there is no military use of this technology — and without military use there is no civilian nuclear energy,” admitted French President Emmanuel Macron in 2019. No surprise then, that France is investing billions in SMR technology. After all, many SMR designs require enriched uranium and plutonium to operate, and the facilities that produce materials for SMRs can also be reconfigured to produce fuel for nuclear weapons. Put another way, the more countries that possess this technology, the more that will have the ability to manufacture atomic bombs.

As the credits rolled on Atomic Bamboozle, I glanced around the packed theater. I instantly sensed the shock felt by movie-goers who had no idea nuclear power was priming for a comeback in the Northwest. Lloyd Marbet, arms crossed, was seated at the back of the theater, looking calmer than most. Still, I knew he was eager to lead the fight to stop SMRs from reaching the shores of the nearby Columbia River and would infuse a younger generation with a passion to resist the nuclear-industrial complex he’s been challenging for decades.

“Can you believe we’re fighting this shit all over again?” he asked me later with his usual sense of urgency and outrage. “We’ve beat them before and you can damn well bet we’ll do it again.”

JOSHUA FRANK is the managing editor of CounterPunch. He is the author of the new book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, published by Haymarket Books. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.