The cost of building large, conventional nuclear power plants continues to escalate, leading the nuclear industry to explore an alternative, the small modular reactor (SMR). These plants, less than 300 megawatts in size, are “small” only when compared to a conventional nuclear reactor or full size (1000 MW) fossil fuel plant. The nuclear industry hopes that factory-built SMRs will eliminate construction delays and quality control issues that have plagued nuclear projects such as EDF’s Flamanville and Olkiluoto. Small reactor designs include advanced light water reactors (LWRs), high temperature gas cooled (helium) and molten metal cooled (sodium) systems. LWRs that use regular water for cooling and steam are the more conven-tional technology. At the US Department of Energy, a LWR design from NuScale Power is currently pro-ceeding along the regulatory path outlined in the agency’s SMR Licensing and Technical Support program. A second design group which offered a scaled down version of Westinghouse’s AP1000 design, appears to have downgraded its efforts. Small modular reactors are neither a panacea nor likely to herald a nuclear power resurgence. They could solve one problem for the industry, lengthy construction cycles, but only at a high cost. And SMRs will need to compete in an increasingly commoditized electricity market . In a commodity industry, with no product differentiation, there is one winning strategy: charge low prices. These small reactors are being proposed at a time when distributed and renewable electrical systems are becoming more economical. The very notion of dropping a technologically complex, pricey, base load power plant (nuclear or otherwise) into a no-growth environment for the electric utility industry is prob-lematic at best. This all suggests that SMRs, if commercialized, will have a limited market unless they come into service at sharply lower prices. They do not yet look like next “big” thing.
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