U.S. company that planned to build the first small nuclear reactor power plant cancels its project

U.S. company that planned to build the first small nuclear reactor power plant cancels its project

The only planned and approved small modular reactor project in the United States was canceled Wednesday, adding to the troubles the so-called “nuclear renaissance” has encountered since that term came into prominence a couple of decades ago. 

At the turn of 21st Century, the Department of Energy funded research on the development of small, modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) for various uses. Idaho National Environment & Engineering Laboratory led the project with support from Oregon State University (OSU). Scientists at OSU at the time were also looking into developing passive safety systems using natural circulation to cool nuclear plants, a passive design engineers chose to make these plants inherently safer.

While critics have long criticized nuclear power as too dangerous, too expensive, and with a potential for terrorist attack, advocates have pointed to the advantages of power plants that can reliably run 24/7, have low greenhouse gas emissions over their life cycle, and take up far less space than solar and wind farms.

Although advocates argue that the overall safety record of nuclear plants has been excellent, they say SMR designs are even safer. Best of all, they assert, SMRs with a 50- to 300-megawatt generating capacity will be cheaper than the giants of 1,000 megawatts or more that make up the majority of the 92 U.S. nuclear power plants currently in operation. These modular SMRs can be built in a factory and shipped to the needed locations as opposed to the expensive, customized reactor approach used to build the current flotilla of U.S. nuclear plants.

Environmental advocates are split on whether expanding nuclear power or even maintaining existing nuclear power plants should be part of addressing the climate crisis. Currently, these plants provide more emissions-free electricity than any other single source, though solar and wind are catching up. (Note: We’re talking operationally here. The manufacture and installation of all these sources generate some carbon emissions.) Some advocates say the U.S. cannot achieve zero operational emissions from power plants without at least some new nukes. The Biden administration has made clear it favors a build-out of new nuclear technology, having budgeted a 50% increase in the DOE’s nuclear office and an additional $6 billion to keep existing reactors from shutting down. He also added $100 million to the $600 million already spent on an SMR project in Idaho.

The DOE and OSU research a quarter-century ago led to the founding of NuScale Power, owned by Fluor. After a six-year process, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a NuScale design for an SMR this February. With its Carbon Free Power Project, NuScale planned to build six 77-megawatt reactor modules at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory by 2030, a change from the original 2026 startup date made after running into technical snags and a cost estimate that soared from $3 billion to $6.1 billion. 

But on Wednesday, even that date was scuttled as NuScale and its partner utility announced the cancelation of the project after estimated costs had risen to $9.3 billion. As a consequence, utilities in towns that would have received its electricity chose not to participate, and NuScale noted in a press release that “it appears unlikely that the project will have enough subscription to continue toward deployment.”

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