Energy Blog: Small Nuclear Reactors May Be the Future, but the Ukraine War Pushes Questions of Safety

Energy Blog: Small Nuclear Reactors May Be the Future, but the Ukraine War Pushes Questions of Safety

Containment structures are hardened for disasters, but not for shelling from war.
As the limits of near-term renewable energy sources and electric grids become more obvious, there appears to be increasing interest in nuclear power, particularly the budding potential of small modular reactors. The interest is fueled by climate change and a need for energy security.
The global fleet of 411 nuclear power plants are aging, with about two-thirds that are between 31 and greater than 50 years. Because of their history of cost and construction overruns, the future of nuclear power will be in small reactors that can be built modularly and deployed in increments.
Speaking at a recent industry symposium, executives of two nuclear development firms said “really large numbers…massive numbers” of SMRs are needed globally to produce reliable clean power. Those numbers are still well into the future, however, as the first of the new SMR designs won’t be operating until the end of the decade.
Holtec International’s Rick Springman said his firm’s first commercial operation of an SMR-160 could be a reality by 2030, at the closed Oyster Creek site in New Jersey. The Tennessee Valley Authority is working with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy to build its BWRX-300 SMR at the Clinch River site in Tennessee.

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Security, however, is becoming a bigger concern. Industry executives say large numbers of SMRs will have to be built globally to combat climate change, and a lot of those could be targeted for remote areas with intermittent or unreliable power supplies. The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2022, published last month, for the first time includes a chapter on new threats brought on by Russia’s war with Ukraine.
“The higher the nuclear share, the more difficult to shut down all reactors as a precautionary measure in case of war,” according to the report. “Physics do not change under wartime conditions. If a core meltdown is triggered by the impact of weapons on the reactor building, more radioactivity is likely to escape because a damaged reactor enclosure cannot fulfill its intended containment purpose.”
The annual report is written by nuclear researchers with funding from the U.S. MacArthur Foundation and Heinrich Boell Stiftung, in Germany.
The chapter on threats from warfare stems from the shelling and rocket attacks against Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nucleear Power Plant. While reactors are contained in hardened structures to protect against earthquakes, plane crashes or severe weather, war has not been factored into their design.
The U.S. Department of Defense has funded research on the feasibility of battle-hardened SMRs that could be deployed in combat zones, but standard civilian designs have not factored in that risk. Incorporating such a design would also boost costs, making the economics potentially unrealistic.

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Going forward, the industry is speculating that thousands of SMRs will be needed to fulfill global needs. Those could potentially be targets in future conflicts. At greater risk would be spent fuel and waste that will remain stored on site because there are not any long-term storage depositories sited or licensed.
The Department of Energy in 2010 shut down development of the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada after Congress and the president approved siting. More than $15 billion has been spent on research and development there.
In the U.K., Rolls-Royce SMR also is developing a small reactor estimated to cost $2.5 billion to $3.2 billion that could be built in about five to six years. But long-term waste disposal from its existing plants is still being explored.

John Kosowatz is senior editor.

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