Skip to main content

The Love of 1000 Razors: UCS on Small Reactors

UCS_logoOur friends over at the Union of Concerned Scientists have always had an interesting approach to nuclear energy. It claims to support it - if reactors could be, you  know, safer, less expensive and more secure. You could call it the love of 1000 razors, each cut inflicting another wound, but all for the benefit of nuclear energy.

So knowing that UCS has a new report on small reactors leads one to suspect that the conclusion will be that that these sub-350 megawatt reactors will not be safer, less expensive than their full size counterparts or more secure. And so it is.

Now, let’s allow that no small reactor has been deployed or even licensed, though interest runs high. The Department of Energy is working with Babcock & Wilcox on prototyping and licensing the B&W design, with other vendors to follow. The Tennessee Valley Authority has expressed interesting in using them at its Clinch River site. Still, early days. A lot could happen.

It also means that anything I could say about them beyond the basics would be conjecture. That’s equally true of UCS, but it certainly proceeds as though small reactors have already pulled loose from their moorings and run amuck through the countryside.

Well, alright, let’s be fair. UCS knows it is engaging in preemptive scaremongering (SMRs are small modular reactors):

certain safety regulations of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission could be relaxed for SMRs.

whatever intrinsic safety advantages are unique to SMRs could be lost if the NRC allows safety margins to be reduced in other respects.

mistakes on a production line can lead to generic defects that could propagate through an entire fleet of reactors and be costly to fix.

I did not count rigorously, but UCS must have used “could” at least 40 times in this short report. A small reactor could open a portal to the fifth dimension and bring forth a murderous glop monster. Anything goes in the world of “could.”

This one struck me as particularly funny:

For example, efficiencies associated with the economics of mass production could lower costs if SMRs are eventually built and sold in large numbers. Such factors are speculative at this point…

Pot, kettle, shake hands.

Now, here’s the thing beyond the thing: A lot of UCS’s worries are just extensions of their 1000 razors – because full size reactors are so problematic, surely small reactors will be more of the same, only, um, smaller.

But consider: the NRC’s most recent annual report to Congress on “abnormal occurrences” at full-scale reactors—unscheduled incidents or events that the agency determines to be significant from the standpoint of public health or safety – showed only one such occurrence at a U.S. facility (in 2011) during the past decade. (I should add that abnormal events do not actually endanger safety – they hold the potential to do so if unchecked.) Similarly, the latest report from the NRC’s Industry Trend Program identified no significant adverse trends in industry safety performance.

Let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with criticizing small reactors, their makers, government regulators or, heck, NEI. But UCS does not offer criticism. It extends a pile of bad assumptions about full-size reactors to small reactors with no proof offered at all to justify them.

Small reactors are not precisely new technology – submarines have used a variation for years without incident – and the earlier generation of full-size nuclear plants generated less electricity than they do – the first commercial reactor at Shippingport ran at 60 megawatts. None of that means criticism wouldn’t be useful. But this is useless criticism, a sop to the anti-nuclear gullible.  Even if I hated nuclear energy, I’d be insulted by it.


jimwg said…
The UCS runs amok coyly spreading FUD to a largely nuclear-clueless public only because there's absolutely no toe-to-toe challenge or correction by the nuclear industry or nuclear community to chomp their assertions in the bud. If rats fester your home blame no one else if you sit back and let them grow there.

James Greenidge
Queens NY
Atomikrabbit said…
Jim - perhaps NEI doesn't market their blog to the mass media as aggressively as UCS.

Or perhaps the media editors, largely J-school or humanities grads, just find the pseudo-scientific UCS viewpoint more congruent with their own belief system (and not coincidentally, more satisfactory to their major sponsors, the fossil fuel companies).
Mitch said…
Blogger Atomikrabbit said...

Or perhaps the media editors, largely J-school or humanities grads, just find the pseudo-scientific UCS viewpoint more congruent with their own belief system (and not coincidentally, more satisfactory to their major sponsors, the fossil fuel companies).

Isn't that from Jaczko's resume?

Popular posts from this blog

A Billion Miles Under Nuclear Energy (Updated)

And the winner is…Cassini-Huygens, in triple overtime.

The spaceship conceived in 1982 and launched fifteen years later, will crash into Saturn on September 15, after a mission of 19 years and 355 days, powered by the audacity and technical prowess of scientists and engineers from 17 different countries, and 72 pounds of plutonium.

The mission was so successful that it was extended three times; it was intended to last only until 2008.

Since April, the ship has been continuing to orbit Saturn, swinging through the 1,500-mile gap between the planet and its rings, an area not previously explored. This is a good maneuver for a spaceship nearing the end of its mission, since colliding with a rock could end things early.

Cassini will dive a little deeper and plunge toward Saturn’s surface, where it will transmit data until it burns up in the planet’s atmosphere. The radio signal will arrive here early Friday morning, Eastern time. A NASA video explains.

In the years since Cassini has launc…

Sneak Peek

There's an invisible force powering and propelling our way of life.
It's all around us. You can't feel it. Smell it. Or taste it.
But it's there all the same. And if you look close enough, you can see all the amazing and wondrous things it does.
It not only powers our cities and towns.
And all the high-tech things we love.
It gives us the power to invent.
To explore.
To discover.
To create advanced technologies.
This invisible force creates jobs out of thin air.
It adds billions to our economy.
It's on even when we're not.
And stays on no matter what Mother Nature throws at it.
This invisible force takes us to the outer reaches of outer space.
And to the very depths of our oceans.
It brings us together. And it makes us better.
And most importantly, it has the power to do all this in our lifetime while barely leaving a trace.
Some people might say it's kind of unbelievable.
They wonder, what is this new power that does all these extraordinary things?

Missing the Point about Pennsylvania’s Nuclear Plants

A group that includes oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania released a study on Monday that argues that twenty years ago, planners underestimated the value of nuclear plants in the electricity market. According to the group, that means the state should now let the plants close.


The question confronting the state now isn’t what the companies that owned the reactors at the time of de-regulation got or didn’t get. It’s not a question of whether they were profitable in the '80s, '90s and '00s. It’s about now. Business works by looking at the present and making projections about the future.

Is losing the nuclear plants what’s best for the state going forward?

Pennsylvania needs clean air. It needs jobs. And it needs protection against over-reliance on a single fuel source.

What the reactors need is recognition of all the value they provide. The electricity market is depressed, and if electricity is treated as a simple commodity, with no regard for its benefit to clean air o…