Small modular reactors want to make headlines

Instead, they are already in the obituary column

Beyond Nuclear has produced a step-by-step handout on key arguments against pursuing SMRs.

By Linda Pentz Gunter

So now the IAEA is on the act. Although actually, promoting nuclear power IS the IAEA’s act. From October 7-11, the IAEA will hold the “International Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power” in its hometown of Vienna, Austria. In its breathy and enthusiastic introduction to the conference, the agency describes its “statutory objective” as being “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world.

Peace, health and prosperity? Nuclear power has arguably never contributed any one of these. In the current economic climate it never will. It’s brazen hubris of course, but it comes from a place of desperation. Climate change is finally in the headlines. The nuclear power industry wants to be, too. Instead, it’s in the obituary column.

That’s where Dr. Jim Green of Friends of the Earth Australia, decided to assign the SMR in his excellent article which we reproduce this week. He called it an obituary, but arguably, SMRs have not yet even been born, so we called them “dead on non-arrival” in our headline.

Among the presentations at the IAEA conference, will most certainly be a flurry of enthusiastic expositions on the golden future of the so-called Small Modular Reactor. Again, it’s the fancy footwork with words that makes this notion sound palatable. Small? Good. Modular? Sounds simple to assemble. Good again. Like Lego, an image Dr. M.V. Ramana even used in a recent slide presentation on the fallacies of the SMR. The word “nuclear” is carefully omitted from the name. Why? Because we’ve been here before and it didn’t work out so well then, either.

SMR fact sheet excerpt

An excerpt from Beyond Nuclear’s new fact sheet on Small Modular Reactors.

The SMR as latest salvation for the waning nuclear power industry is so ubiquitous I’m starting to wish there was a vaccination against this rash. It’s bothersome, and we’ll get over it soon, but it sure would be nice to stop having to scratch this itch.

In an effort, therefore, to help more easily swat the SMR fly, we decided to synthesize many of the good, learned, but longish reports on the downsides — and impending downfall — of the SMR, into a single handout. It’s entitled: Small Modular Reactors and why we don’t need them.

Most of us don’t have the time to argue the case against SMRs in depth and many of those we need to persuade (or dissuade from jumping on the SMR sinking ship) don’t have the attention span to read long reports.

Our main source (and editor par excellence) for our fact sheet is Dr. M.V. Ramana who continues to write and present extensively on the aspirations versus realties of the SMR. Dr. Ramana is Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia, Canada. (His writing is clear and accessible and far less of a mouthful than his title, so we encourage you to read his reports in full as well.)

We also relied on writings by Dr. Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Canadian expert, Dr. Gordon Edwards, and British independent consultant, Dr. David Lowry, all of whom have written on the subject. Their work is sourced in the footnoted version of our fact sheet. We removed the footnotes from the flyer so it would fit on two sides of a single page.

SMRs uranium and waste

A slide from a recent presentation by M.V. Ramana concludes that the light water reactor version of the SMR will be more resource intensive and produce more waste than traditional reactors.

The main arguments against the SMR are that they will actually produce more expensive electricity than traditional large (and already uneconomic) light water reactors; they still produce radioactive waste; they require a large upfront investment for an SMR factory that would need to produce thousands of reactors to recoup its costs; thousands would also be needed to make even a tiny dent in carbon emissions reductions; and, because the designs are still on paper, safety has not been satisfactorily tested.

Consequently, there are no orders for small modular reactors, which makes it immoral at best for politicians to tout these as some sort of jobs panacea to communities looking to stay in the nuclear game as their traditional nuclear plants close.

Please feel free to download either version of our SMR fact sheet and use it wherever it’s needed. Please also consider handing these to your elected officials. They need to know that they are wasting precious time and taxpayer money (the only way SMRs will get funding — yes even Rolls Royce went cap-in-hand to the UK government asking for $263.5 billion to kickstart its SMR program) if they back the SMR dead horse. Climate change won’t wait. We can’t afford to wait for another flawed fantasy from the nuclear power industry. 

The IAEA says its conference discussion “will be guided by the following questions: “Where are we?”; “Where do we want to go?”; and “How do we get there?”. The nuclear power industry is in decline and wants the taxpayer to revive it. One thing is certain, the SMR won’t get them there.

Headline Lego photo by Clement 127 for Creative Commons/Flickr.

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