No use in the climate crisis

New Talking Points delivers all the reasons why small modular reactors have no role to play for climate change

By Linda Pentz Gunter

We’ve written a lot on these pages about small modular reactors (including again last week) and there’s a reason. Even though SMRs are a mirage, languishing as aspirational power point reactors loaded with false promises, there is a tsunami of license applications coming down for them. 

And we are saddled with a compliant Congress, White House and nuclear regulator, all of whom have bought into the Great Lie that SMRs can do something — anything — for the climate crisis. So they will likely rubber stamp the lot. Unless we stop them.

On December 2 it will be 80 years since the first human-made self-sustaining chain reaction occurred, at the Chicago Pile-1 under the leadership of Enrico Fermi and his team. That generated the first cupful of radioactive waste, which, along with the numerous other attendant problems of nuclear energy, has never been solved. Here we are, 80 years later, still relentlessly tilting at nuclear windmills. By now, we ought to know better.

You would think it would be obvious to anyone giving this technology a second thought, that given the immense lead times, high costs, uncertainties about design and safety, and the complete absence of a radioactive waste management plan, any nuclear reactor, large or small, is a climate liability, not a solution.

The new Beyond Nuclear Talking Points on small modular reactors covers the five key areas in which SMRs are deficient.

Nevertheless, the empirical evidence is being drowned out by denial. “We don’t get to net zero by 2050 without nuclear power in the mix,” US Special Climate Envoy, John Kerry, unhelpfully, and untruthfully, told a press conference during the COP27 climate summit while announcing SMR deals with Romania and Ukraine.

It’s possible that our illustrious leaders know better. They just prefer to maintain the creature comforts of the status quo, content to be the puppets of big polluters — fossil fuels and nuclear power — where the votes and, more importantly, the money are.

We can’t compete with the money. But we can change the votes. Elected officials want to stay elected. That means pleasing their electorate. So they need to hear from us. Because when it comes to pushing small modular reactors, we aren’t at all pleased.

The Beyond Nuclear series of Talking Points is designed to make our job easier in outreaching to politicians, the press and each other. Our newest edition — Unfounded Promises: Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) solve none of the challenges of nuclear power and make climate change and proliferation worse — published today, focuses on all the downsides to small modular reactors.

Each one in the Talking Points series — now up to No. 6 — provides simple messages and clear statements that show, without a doubt, and backed by the facts, that nuclear power not only has zero role to play in mitigating the worst of our climate crisis, but actually makes that crisis worse.

SMRs will be needed in their hundreds if not thousands, requiring up front investment in factories and a known source of readily available fuel. None of this is in place. The typical timeframe for even a known reactor design is more than a decade — sometimes several decades. We don’t have that kind of time.

Small modular reactors would deliver electricity that is more expensive than that provided by traditional large reactors today. 

SMRs will actually produce more radioactive waste per unit of electricity generated than today’s reactors, waste for which there is still no safe and permanent solution.

Every dollar sunk into new small modular reactor plans could have reduced more carbon faster if invested instead in renewable energy and energy efficiency. It’s a no-brainer simple equation that an elementary school kid could work out. But not, apparently, our leaders. Why not?

See above (follow the money) and then there’s the weapons link.

“A strong domestic supply chain is needed to provide for nuclear Navy requirements,” said the Energy Futures Initiative in its report — The U.S. Nuclear Energy Enterprise: A Key National Security Enabler. “This supply chain has an inherent and very strong overlap with the commercial nuclear energy sector and has a strong presence in states with commercial nuclear power plants.”

SMRs would keep that supply chain — and the civil nuclear sector — alive. A 2019 Atlantic Council reportThe Value of the US Nuclear Power Complex to US National Securityagrees. “Civil nuclear underpins military nuclear,” it said. “The lack of a civilian nuclear sector would present an immediate and significant economic shock (and impact on the labor force) — which, in turn, would have immediate and longer-term budgetary implications for the US government.”

A strong domestic supply chain is needed to provide for nuclear Navy requirements. An SMR program would keep that flowing. (Photo of Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Tennessee by Petty Officer 1st Class James Kimber/U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons)

At least two of the companies striving to develop SMRs in the US have direct links to the nuclear weapons sector. Bill Gates’s TerraPower — whose reactor can be modified to “dual purpose” for weapons and power — has research and development partnerships with Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Y-12 National Security Complex, both of which design and test nuclear weapons. NuScale is majority owned by Fluor Corporation, which operates the U.S. Pantex and Y-12 nuclear weapons complexes. 

Furthermore, SMRs are largely destined for export, and hardly for any domestic use at all. That hands proliferation-friendly materials, technology and know-how to countries not presently in possession of this relatively straightforward pathway to nuclear weapons.

If we are to understand the blind obsession with SMRs, the weapons connection offers one of the only plausible explanations. The stranglehold in the halls of power is the other — sound science, economics and our future be damned.

Only we can change this. Please use this latest edition of our Talking Points to contribute to a tsunami of our own — decrying the reckless waste of precious time and taxpayer money that would favor an elusive SMR program. These funds must urgently be directed to renewable energy, an industry that is here now, growing fast and one that can both reduce carbon emissions and provide good, long-term jobs into the future.

Note: In the interest of brevity, the Talking Points do not include footnotes. However, the sources and references used for the SMR Talking Points can be found in a separate document here.

Headline photo by Commons:RIA Novosti/Wikimedia Commons.

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

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