America’s First Approved SMR Nuclear Fission Reactor Under Suspicion

Fourth-generation nuclear fission is promising. The countries that defend this electricity generation technology are confident in its ability to leave behind many of the disadvantages of nuclear power plants in operation. After all, it is one of the ingredients in the recipe they propose to minimize the emission of greenhouse gases.

In fact, the fourth generation designs propose to take a new direction so as not to be weighed down by deficiencies introduced in previous generations. And to achieve this they must necessarily meet three requirements.

This is what fourth-generation nuclear fission promises us

The first of these is to reach maximum possible sustainabilityso that the fuel is used to the maximum to produce energy, the amount of radioactive waste resulting from the process is minimized and its management is as efficient as possible.

The second requirement concerns economic investment that must be faced to start up and maintain the nuclear power plant, which must be as low as possible so that it can be compared to the expense required by other energy sources, thus reducing the financial risk.

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And the third and last requirement stipulates that safety and reliability they must be high enough to minimize the probability of damage to the reactor core. In addition, if an accident occurs, it should not be necessary to take emergency measures beyond the nuclear power plant facilities.

Some companies and public institutions in the countries that maintain their commitment to nuclear fission have been working on the design of SMR reactors for several years

All this sounds very good, but the most interesting thing is that some companies and public institutions in the countries that maintain their commitment to nuclear fission have been working for several years on the design of modular and compact reactors (known as SMR by the name in English Small Modular Reactor). And some of them are being designed according to the principles and requirements established for fourth-generation nuclear fission equipment.

However, this is not really a nascent technology. In fact, some of these designs are found in a very advanced state of development. One of the most promising is that of the American company NuScale, which has the financial support and approval of the United States Department of Energy (known as DOE by its name in English).

What the report harshly criticizing NuScale’s SMR reactor says

NuScale currently has several SMR design projects underway simultaneously. Curiously, one of them will be the first with these characteristics to be installed in Poland, but the closest one in time will be built in the facilities of the United States Department of Energy in Idaho. Precisely this last project received NRC approval (Nuclear Regulatory Commission), which is the US agency that regulates and supervises nuclear energy, in 2020.

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However, it’s not all cheers for NuScale’s SMR design. And it is that a few days ago IEEFA (Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis), which is an institution specialized in the analysis of energy technologies and markets, has published an article in which casts very serious doubts about the qualities that NuScale believes its SMR reactor design has. This literal sentence from IEEFA is very clarifying: “Too late, too expensive, too dangerous and too much uncertainty”.

Its operational performance, according to IEEFA, will be below the 95% claimed by NuScale

According to this institution, the main risks involved in the design of the NuScale SMR reactor derive from its cost, which according to the DOE will exceed 6,800 dollars per kW; the period of time that it is necessary to invest in its construction, which according to IEEFA will not allow it to come into operation until mid-2029, and not in 2026, as NuScale foresees; its operational performance, which according to IEEFA will be below 95% that NuScale proclaims; and, finally, its presumably high maintenance and operating costs.

In any case, we must not overlook the fact that this IEEFA criticism, if it is really correct, does not call into question the design and profitability of all SMR reactors; only involves this NuScale proposal in particular. Beyond this interesting debate, it is reasonable to conclude that the future of nuclear fission in those countries that believe in this way of obtaining energy involves betting on fourth-generation reactors in general, and those of the SMR type in particular.

Cover image | NuScale

More information | NuScale | IEEFA

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