Time isn’t on their side

Why is the US government still pouring tax dollars into SMRs?

By Linda Pentz Gunter

Among the myriad problems of the ever-promised-but-never-quite-here Small Modular Reactors (SMR)—aside from the fact that there is no economic rationale or established demand for ordering them — is access to the fuel most of the models would require.

With the exception of the NuScale reactor design, which is based on the traditional light water reactor, many of the remaining American SMRs on the drawing board would use High Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU) fuel, something only Russia commercially manufactures currently. (The “low enriched” in the name is misleading as the uranium is actually enriched to close to 20% which borders on weapons-usable.)

HALEU explanation by U.S. Department of Energy

On the one hand, the US and European Union countries appear to have no “energy security” concerns about continuing to import raw uranium and nuclear fuel from an increasingly hostile Russia already at war in Ukraine amid tightening fuel embargoes. 

On the other hand, the need to import HALEU from Russia has suddenly prompted an attack of conscience in at least one quarter. 

“We didn’t have a fuel problem until a few months ago,” Jeff Navin, director of external affairs of the Bill Gates owned company, TerraPower, told Reuters. “After the invasion of Ukraine, we were not comfortable doing business with Russia.”

Before the invasion, Russia was in the habit of exiling, imprisoning, poisoning and assassinating its detractors, including Russian journalists. But that, apparently, was no deterrent to Terrapower and others.

Our own free press, meanwhile, largely ignores the many pitfalls of SMRs. The design concepts aren’t new and have languished on the horizon for decades; they will cost more than traditional reactors, given the projected numbers needed; the “fast” reactor design has an accident-prone and proliferation-friendly history; and, in comparison with large reactors, SMRs will produce more radioactive waste per unit of electricity generated — in the case of high-level waste, 5.5 times more.

Instead, countless articles obediently parrot the nuclear party line that SMRs will be fast, cheap and safe and can reduce carbon emissions to save us from climate catastrophe. 

None of this is borne out by reality. Or, to put it another way, none of this is true.

Let’s take a look at the track record so far, in countries with SMR programs actually underway. Take Argentina. Its 30 MW CAREM-25 was in the development phase for almost 30 years before the first concrete was poured in 2014, according to the 2022 edition of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report. After that, the startup date was predicted to be 2017, then 2022 and now 2026. Even if it meets that deadline, the project would by then have been in the works for 42 years.

The still under construction CAREM SMR in Argentina, which, if it’s ever completed, may take 42 years. (Photo: WikiWand)

The original cost estimate for the Argentinian CAREM-25 was around $105 million in 2005, reports the WNISR. By 2014 it had soared to $446 million. Current predictions range from $520 million to $750 million as the likely final cost for a reactor with a tiny output compared to a full-size (and actually cheaper) traditional 1000 MW reactor.

Even China, known for speedy construction times (although with questionable safety records) needed 109 months between the concrete pour and grid connection for its SMR, more than twice as long as originally predicted.

Nine US SMR projects are already sucking up US taxpayer dollars without solving the HALEU problem. “The Inflation Reduction Act U.S. President Joe Biden signed in August contained $700 million to secure HALEU supplies from the government and a consortium partnered with the DOE for use in advanced reactors and research,” reported Reuters.

But retooling the industry for the domestic production of HALEU fuel will not be straightforward and developing it will put an unpredictable but significant delay on the climate goals for the US SMR program. This presents a conundrum perfectly described by Daniel Poneman, chief executive of U.S. nuclear fuel supplier Centrus Energy Corp., in the same Reuters article.

“Nobody wants to order 10 reactors without a fuel source, and nobody wants to invest in a fuel source without 10 reactor orders,” Poneman said.

Centrus has a contract to make HALEU but hasn’t begun yet and cannot hope to deliver the output that would actually be needed. However, in early November, the DOE announced it would award Centrus “a cost-shared, approximately $150 million award”.

DOE Secretary, Jennifer Granholm, in announcing the award, completely ignored the long lead times and massive expense involved for the HALEU project (not to mention the proliferation issues) while crowing disingenuously: “Reducing our reliance on adversarial nations for HALEU fuel and building up our domestic supply chain will allow the U.S. to grow our advanced reactor fleet and provide Americans with more clean, affordable power.” It will, of course, do no such thing.

The reactors that would use HALEU — including the Terrapower Natrium design and the “chalet-in-the-woods” Aurora by Oklo (see headline photo) — have already been flagged as proliferation risky. One reason is that the companies making these reactors have signaled their clear interest in the export market. And that puts very effective plutonium-making equipment into the hands of countries that could easily use these reactors to manufacture nuclear weapons as well. It’s exactly why alarm bells have been raised about Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

None of this has, of course, deterred the U.S. Department of Energy from handing Oklo $15 million of our tax dollars for its role in four cost-share projects to commercialize advanced reactor fuel from nuclear waste.

Just to make the weapons connection even clearer, the US government is considering down-blending its surplus weapons-grade uranium stockpile (enriched to 90% U-235 or higher) to use as HALEU fuel. Contrary to the goals of non-proliferation, the proposal encourages the global merchandizing and trafficking of highly enriched uranium.

The picture ought to be clear by now. While we fiddle with small modular reactors, the planet burns. There is zero indication SMRs can be developed at all (no market, no fuel), nor can they address numerous safety and proliferation problems. Their costs promise to be higher in the end than sticking with Generation III light water reactors. None of it makes any sense. 

The suddenly inconvenient Russia problem around HALEU could be solved in an instant, (and not by building a HALEU production facility in US): Zero demand. No “advanced” SMRs equals no HALEU. End of problem. And the world will be a slightly safer place as a result.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.

Headline photo: The not-so-benign and HALEU-fueled proliferation friendly Aurora SMR by Oklo, disguised as a romantic chalet in the woods. Photo: Oklo/Wikimedia Commons.

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