Our 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.