Thursday, October 28, 2010

Small Modular Reactors:

Why Size May Make a Difference

A few weeks ago, I published a post that was primarily a report on a meeting of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on small modular reactors (SMRs). As I was completing the post, I came across a publication by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), an openly anti-nuclear organization, that reiterated some of the same points made in the CSIS presentations, and added others. I did not try to do a complete review of the IEER piece, which raised other issues as well, but simply noted that it had just been published and that it seemed to raise some of the same arguments.

My point in summarizing the CSIS meeting was not to endorse those views, but rather to point out that, for the first time, people are beginning to look at SMRs analytically. In some cases, the voices we are hearing are from responsible organizations that are seriously trying to anticipate problems better than we have done as a society in the past and to address them at the outset rather than scrambling to fix them later. In other cases, anti-nuclear groups who have, perhaps, been caught a little by surprise at the traction SMRs have been getting, are now mobilizing to attack this new vision of nuclear power.

Since I only came across the IEER article at the last minute, I mentioned it solely to note that it raised some of the same safeguards and security concerns that were raised during the CSIS meeting. I meant to come back at some point and explore some of the other concerns the IEER raised, particularly about cost and safety. Fortunately, Charles Barton beat me to it, and on his blog, has provided a number of counterarguments to the IEER positions. Since he is more of an expert than I am in this area, I'm quite pleased to have his analysis available to cite. He specifically addresses the IEER arguments on safety, pointing to historical records of safety performance of past and existing small reactors, novel safety measures in some SMR designs, the evolution of safety measures and practices with operating experience, analytical reasons for having or not having containment, and the experience of the airline industry in mass manufacturing and safety. He also takes on the IEER assertions about SMR costs, noting that they have been selective in their arguments, as well as their claims about SMRs and waste, pointing to the benefits of some of the advanced fuel cycles, particularly Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors and Denatured Molten Salt Reactors.

There will surely be much more said about all these issues before a plant is ever built, but it is good to start getting both sides of the arguments out on the table early.



  1. It's interesting that there's no mention of the power sources being more localised, which has the obvious benefit of reducing transport losses. Having read Barton's analysis it sounds like we need a more neutral party to play devil's advocate and challenge claims by the nuclear industry. I'll download Makhijani's book and see for myself.

  2. AlenN, i do, from time to time play Devil's advocate with a variety of claims about nuclear power, both supportive and hostile. i provided a link to Makhijani's report, and assumed that my readers would read it, and judge for themselves whether my critique was accurate. My intention was not to voice the views of "the nuclear industry," but to answer two questions:

    1. Did Makhijani offer a comprehensive account of facts derived from well documented sources?
    2. Did Makhijani use valid reasoning processes in arriving at his conclusion?

    I found errors in the factual claims that Makhijani made, and logical errors in the construction of his contentions about small reactors. Hence given the errors I had uncovered, Makhijani's had not demonstrated that his contentions about small reactors were true.