The Nuclear Fallacy: Why Small Modular Reactors Cannot Compete With Renewable Power


One of many matters in my current dialogue with Bent Flyvbjerg (LinkedinTwitter), in all probability the main world tutorial in megaproject failures and successes, somebody who has consulted to over 100 tasks costing greater than a billion USD, was the optimization of modularity in scaling. The dialogue level was about small modular nuclear reactors vs wind and photo voltaic vitality.

The graphic under is from Flyvbjerg’s upcoming ebook, co-authored with Dan Gardner, How Huge Issues Get Carried out: The Stunning Components That Decide the Destiny of Each Venture, from Residence Renovations to House Exploration and All the things In Between (strongly advisable for vitality builders, institutional traders and coverage makers). It’s assembled from the 16,000 tasks Flyvbjerg and his group have gathered into their dataset of megaprojects. The black vertical line is the dividing line between tasks that sometimes are delivered on time and finances vs those who sometimes aren’t, with the extremes displaying which tasks are greatest (photo voltaic and wind technology building) and worst (all issues nuclear and Olympics).

Image of project categories which meet time, budget and benefits expectations vs ones that don't from How Big Things Get Done by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner

Picture of mission classes which meet time, finances and advantages expectations vs ones that don’t, from How Huge Issues Get Carried out by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner

That is, in fact, the issue small modular reactors (SMRS) try to deal with: nuclear tasks go over finances and schedule, particularly in current many years within the west.

As I stated to Flyvbjerg, there are situations beneath which GW-scale nuclear technology applications can obtain cheap outcomes, however they’re tough to realize. These situations are {that a} main jurisdiction has to decide to nuclear technology as a nationwide technique, sometimes aligned with nuclear weapons. The nation has to decide to dozens of reactors. They must construct them out in 30 years or much less. They’ve to make use of the equivalent know-how in every reactor with no bespoke engineering or improvements.

The mix of circumstances existed briefly within the US, France, and South Korea earlier than withering into mud. They keep away from the fat-tailed dangers related to nuclear technology ‘innovation’, keep away from bespoke engineering, permit straightforward budgetary administration from slush funds and the like, overriding of native issues and regulatory variances from the nationwide degree, sharing of learnings from website to website, and creation of the very expert, licensed and security-cleared grasp builders and building groups who know the way to construct the reactors shortly. It’s doable to construct nuclear fairly shortly and at an inexpensive price, it’s simply terribly unlikely. Flyvbjerg’s nuclear mission knowledge, which incorporates US, French, and South Korean deployments, exhibits that it’s nonetheless a lot tougher to get good outcomes than simply constructing wind and photo voltaic.

The trade tried standardization throughout the ‘nuclear renaissance of the 2000s’, with the AP1000 line. It was presupposed to do most of what small modular reactors are presupposed to do. It was presupposed to be standardized, have manufacturable parts that could possibly be shipped to websites and assembled, and be passively secure. Examples of tasks with the AP1000 embrace the Summers and Vogtle crops, each of which went vastly over finances and schedule, one among which was killed outright and the opposite of which is limping alongside to potential grid-connection within the subsequent yr or two. The failure of the AP1000 was one of many contributing elements that led to the chapter of Toshiba Westinghouse and its subsequent buy by Brookfield for decommissioning income.

On the time it wasn’t clear to the numerous, many vitality analysts who didn’t perceive modularity, parallelization, manufacturability, and world provide chains that wind and photo voltaic costs would plunge. And it wasn’t clear to extra those who they wouldn’t affect grid reliability. Effectively, the information on that’s in. Wind and photo voltaic have plummeted in prices and grids with greater penetration of renewables are literally extra dependable than coal, gasoline or nuclear heavy grids utilizing trade customary metrics for outages per buyer per yr. Germany and Denmark, for instance, see half or extra of their annual electrical technology from renewables and have outages averaging round 13 minutes per buyer per yr, in comparison with over an hour for neighboring, nuclear-dominant France, two hours for the US and Canada, and 4 hours for coal-heavy Poland.

That’s not as a result of renewables are magic, by the best way, it’s simply that ahead pondering grid strategists and managers are likely to favor renewables and in addition construct dependable grids and markets that make them work effectively. Oh, and Germany’s wholesale electrical energy charges are among the many lowest in Europe, so don’t suppose that this prices some huge cash.

Small modular reactors are the nuclear trade’s subsequent large hope, as a result of no authorities can achieve a mandate to construct dozens of GW-scale reactors any extra. They maintain examples like Hinkley, Flamanville, and different EPR websites, the near a trillion USD impacts to Japan’s economic system resulting from Fukushima, and the mounting value tags and durations of nuclear decommissioning, after which take a look at wind and photo voltaic’s confirmed reliability and low costs and having bother, even in probably the most nuclear-committed international locations, gaining adequate political assist for what works. And so the occasional reactor that will get inexperienced lit is inevitably a failed and troubled mission, leading to very excessive wholesale price electrical energy.

The promise of SMRs is that they are going to be standardized, smaller reactors that may be manufactured in central places, shipped to websites, and assembled on website. No bespoke engineering. This has some advantage, however as famous, it was largely the promise of the AP1000 as effectively. The one really completely different concept is that they’ll be a lot smaller per reactor than the AP1000, from 50-300 MW as an alternative of 1000 MW.

I’m on file with my opinion on SMRs, and my evaluation has gained stunning world consideration. The unique article in CleanTechnica has been up to date in Illuminem, printed in a (minor, low-impact issue) peer-reviewed journal, included in a German clear know-how engineering textbook sequence, and been the premise of a debate for a few hundred world institutional traders with an SMR advocate and analyst, Kirsty Gogan Alexander. What have I concluded about SMRs?

“Small modular reactors gained’t obtain economies of producing scale, gained’t be sooner to assemble, forego effectivity of vertical scaling, gained’t be cheaper, aren’t appropriate for distant or brownfield coal websites, nonetheless face very giant safety prices, will nonetheless be expensive and sluggish to decommission, and nonetheless require legal responsibility insurance coverage caps. They don’t resolve any of the issues that they purport to whereas deliberately selecting to be much less environment friendly than they could possibly be. They’ve existed because the Fifties and so they aren’t any higher now than they had been then.”

The portion I used to be teasing aside with Flyvbjerg in dialogue this week was that they “forego effectivity of vertical scaling.” What does that imply?

Effectively, thermal technology like coal or nuclear likes large boilers. It’s the inverse of liquid hydrogen storage having to be as near balls and as large as doable, thermal effectivity is best in large globes as a result of it minimizes floor space whereas maximizing quantity. Need thermal effectivity? Scale up.

The nuclear trade realized that within the Fifties and Sixties when the US transplanted pressurized water reactors (PWRs) from nuclear-powered submarines and plane carriers to change into business electrical technology services. The economics of subs and carriers is vastly completely different than the economics {of electrical} technology, and the very costly energy that had numerous advantages that the navy favored was simply far too costly. In order that they scaled them up beginning within the Sixties till they hovered round a GW within the Nineteen Seventies and Nineteen Eighties, which is usually the usual globally. India was a bit behind that curve by the way, as they had been constructing 300 MW Candus till 2000 or so, however their new crops are GW-scale as effectively.

So the physics of thermal effectivity are vital. So is modularity and manufacturability. There’s an optimizing curve in there that the SMR corporations try to determine, with some going tiny, and others like Gate’s Terrapower instantly designing GW-scale crops, which means that it’s not an SMR in any respect.

As I stated to Flyvbjerg, the instance of wind generators and photo voltaic panels are very instructive on this regard. They’re each effectively scaled to the necessities of the physics.

Beginning with wind vitality, wind generators have been getting larger, loads larger, with the passing of time. The Innwind mission spent a very long time and numerous mind energy seeing how they might overcome the engineering difficulties in scaling wind generators to 2o MW every. Proper now, onshore generators are loads smaller than that, averaging about 2.6 MW in nameplate capability not as a result of that’s one of the best measurement for technology, however as a result of we will’t transport the masts, nacelles, and blades for larger generators to websites. The onshore limitation is solely logistics of transportation.

Offshore, most of these limits are eliminated as a result of they’ll manufacture the generators beside the ocean, put them on large ships, and sail them on to the wind farm location with out worrying about little issues like bridges or sharp corners alongside the route.

In consequence, in each instances wind generators have been scaled as much as the maximize measurement that they are often resulting from logistical or engineering constraints. Longer blades, additional off the bottom are optimized for the physics and economics of the type of technology. And as mentioned with Flyvbjerg, as a result of a whole bunch or 1000’s of equivalent wind generators are put in with 4 main parts assembled on website, large automation is carried out to hurry the method.

Photo voltaic panels function in another way from a physics perspective. The photo voltaic panel is definitely made up of a bunch of cells. These cells are literally extra environment friendly when they’re smaller because of the physics, however they’re assembled within the manufacturing unit into bigger panels which might be conveniently sized to place in transport containers and be dealt with by one or two unskilled laborers.

Each of those examples are instructive. Wind technology has run up in opposition to engineering and logistics constraints, however photo voltaic clearly hasn’t. Amongst different issues, photo voltaic panels have had a leg up from the huge containerization that’s unfold via marine and floor transport because the Fifties, whereas customized marine and floor automobiles must be constructed for wind generators.

However in each instances, wind and photo voltaic will be manufactured at scales that are very environment friendly for the physics of the type of technology. Wind generators at 2.6 MW are already working at 95% of Betz Regulation. Photo voltaic panels are such low-cost commodities that they don’t must be extra environment friendly than they’re, though numerous cash goes into attempting to eke out a bit extra as a result of when you’re delivering billions of one thing, a 1% effectivity achieve turns into numerous electrical energy.

SMRs are deliberately going again to the smaller scales of the Fifties and Sixties, scales that had been tried and deserted as a result of they weren’t economical at that scale even with standardized reactors from subs and carriers, with none security regulation to talk of, with no Fukushimas or Chernobyls within the rearview mirror, and with a nationwide technique that targeted on nuclear vitality, aligned with the US’ nuclear weapons program.

And word that SMRs don’t do a factor for absolutely the worst case of tasks in Flyvbjerg’s knowledge set — nuclear waste storage services.

Will the SMR neighborhood or any agency be capable to discover an optimized level on the physics vs modularity curve? I don’t suppose so. In the meantime wind and photo voltaic have only a few fat-tailed dangers in building, are manufactured globally by the a whole bunch of 1000’s or tens of tens of millions yearly, have whole world provide chains, have grasp builders and expert staff, are filth low-cost, and are utterly dependable on well-managed grids at large penetrations. I don’t suppose the nuclear trade has a hope of catching up.




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