Australian news, and some related international items

What future for Small Nuclear Reactors (SMRs) in Australia ?

Small nuclear reactor? It’s a lemon!

Large taxpayer subsidies might get some projects, such as the NuScale project in the US or the Rolls-Royce mid-sized reactor project in the UK, to the construction stage. Or they may join the growing list of abandoned SMR projects

In 2022, nuclear power’s future looks grimmer than ever, Jim Green, 11 Jan 2022, RenewEconomy

”……………………………………….. Small modular reactors

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are heavily promoted but construction projects are few and far between and have exhibited disastrous cost overruns and multi-year delays.

It should be noted that none of the projects discussed below meet the ‘modular’ definition of serial factory production of reactor components, which could potentially drive down costs. Using that definition, no SMRs have ever been built and no country, company or utility is building the infrastructure for SMR construction.

In 2004, when the CAREM SMR in Argentina was in the planning stage, Argentina’s Bariloche Atomic Center estimated an overnight cost of A$1.4 billion / GW for an integrated 300 megawatt (MW) plant, while acknowledging that to achieve such a cost would be a “very difficult task”. Now, the cost estimate is more than 20 times greater at A$32.6 billion / GW. A little over A$1 billion for a reactor with a capacity of just 32 MW. The project is seven years behind schedule and costs will likely increase further.

Russia’s 70 MW floating nuclear power plant is said to be the only operating SMR anywhere in the world (although it doesn’t fit the ‘modular’ definition of serial factory production). The construction cost increased six-fold from 6 billion rubles to 37 billion rubles (A$688 million), equivalent to A$9.8 billion / GW. The construction project was nine years behind schedule.

According to the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency, electricity produced by the Russian floating plant costs an estimated A$279 / MWh, with the high cost due to large staffing requirements, high fuel costs, and resources required to maintain the barge and coastal infrastructure. The cost of electricity produced by the Russian plant exceeds costs from large reactors (A$182-284) even though SMRs are being promoted as the solution to the exorbitant costs of large nuclear plants.

SMRs are being promoted as important potential contributors to climate change abatement but the primary purpose of the Russian plant is to power fossil fuel mining operations in the Arctic.

A 2016 report said that the estimated construction cost of China’s demonstration 210 MW high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) is about A$7.0 billion / GW and that cost increases have arisen from higher material and component costs, increases in labour costs, and project delays. The World Nuclear Association states that the cost is A$8.4 billion / GW. Those figures are 2-3 times higher than the A$2.8 billion / GW estimate in a 2009 paper by Tsinghua University researchers.

China’s HTGR was partially grid-connected in late-2021 and full connection will take place in early 2022.

China reportedly plans to upscale the HTGR design to 655 MW (three reactor modules feeding one turbine). China’s Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology at Tsinghua University expects the cost of a 655 MW HTGR will be 15-20 percent higher than the cost of a conventional 600 MW pressurised water reactor.

NucNet reported in 2020 that China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corp dropped plans to manufacture 20 additional HTGR units after levelised cost of electricity estimates rose to levels higher than a conventional pressurised water reactor such as China’s indigenous Hualong One. Likewise, the World Nuclear Association states that plans for 18 additional HTGRs at the same site as the demonstration plant have been “dropped”.

The World Nuclear Association lists just two other SMR construction projects other than those listed above. In July 2021, China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) New Energy Corporation began construction of the 125 MW pressurised water reactor ACP100. According to CNNC, construction costs per kilowatt will be twice the cost of large reactors, and the levelised cost of electricity will be 50 percent higher than large reactors.

In June 2021, construction of the 300 MW demonstration lead-cooled BREST fast reactor began in Russia. In 2012, the estimated cost for the reactor and associated facilities was A$780 million, but the cost estimate has more than doubled and now stands at A$1.9 billion.

SMR hype

Much more could be said about the proliferation of SMRs in the ‘planning’ stage, and the accompanying hype. For example a recent review asserts that more than 30 demonstrations of ‘advanced’ reactor designs are in progress across the globe. In fact, few have progressed beyond the planning stage, and few will. Private-sector funding has been scant and taxpayer funding has generally been well short of that required for SMR construction projects to proceed.

Large taxpayer subsidies might get some projects, such as the NuScale project in the US or the Rolls-Royce mid-sized reactor project in the UK, to the construction stage. Or they may join the growing list of abandoned SMR projects.

failed history of small reactor projects. A handful of recent construction projects, most subject to major cost overruns and multi-year delays. And the possibility of a small number of SMR construction projects over the next decade. Clearly the hype surrounding SMRs lacks justification.

Everything that is promising about SMRs belongs in the never-never; everything in the real-world is expensive and over-budget, slow and behind schedule. Moreover, there are disturbing, multifaceted connections between SMR projects and nuclear weapons proliferation, and between SMRs and fossil fuel mining.

SMRs for Australia

There is ongoing promotion of SMRs in Australia but a study by WSP / Parsons Brinckerhoff, commissioned by the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, estimated costs of A$225 / MWh for SMRs. The Minerals Council of Australia states that SMRs won’t find a market unless they can produce power at about one-third of that cost.

In its 2021 GenCost report, CSIRO provides these 2030 cost estimates:

* Nuclear (SMR): A$128-322 / MWh

* 90 percent wind and solar PV with integration costs (transmission, storage and synchronous condensers): A$55-80 / MWh

Enthusiasts hope that nuclear power’s cost competitiveness will improve, but in all likelihood it will continue to worsen. Alone among energy sources, nuclear power becomes more expensive over time, or in other words it has a negative learning curve.

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and the author of a recent report on nuclear power’s economic crisis.

January 11, 2022 - Posted by | AUSTRALIA - NATIONAL, technology

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