Building promises of small modular reactors—one conference at a time

By Markku Lehtonen | December 22, 2022

SMR research in lab Research and development to support the advancement of small modular reactors and advanced reactors. Image courtesy of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The atmosphere was full of hope for yet another nuclear renaissance, as the Small Modular Reactor (SMR) enthusiasts from industry, government, and business gathered for their annual “SMR & Advanced Reactor 2022” event in Atlanta. The conference, which gathered over 400 vendors, utility representatives, government officials, investors, and policy advocates in May, appeared to be an occasion for “team-building” and raising of spirits within the nuclear community. One senior industry representative after another compared the dawning SMR-led revival of the nuclear industry with the failed past renaissances, proclaiming in unison: “This one truly feels different.”

The feeling of hope—that this time the renaissance would indeed materialize—drew on three key convictions. First, achieving “net zero” carbon emissions with renewable energy only—without nuclear—would be either hugely expensive and environmentally damaging or outright impossible. Second, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine initiated exactly three months prior to the conference had brought energy security back to the top of the energy policy agenda in Western countries. The Western-built SMRs would be “good for the planet and for US national security,” as Laura Holgate, the US ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), proclaimed. Third, thanks to their multifunctionality, SMRs would mark a break from the past, when nuclear energy served merely as a reliable source of baseload electricity. Most fundamentally, marketed as a cheaper, safer, and faster-to-build alternative to the increasingly complex and problematic large-scale nuclear power plants, SMRs have been described as an ideal complement to the intermittent renewable energy sources in future zero-carbon electricity systems.

Open to paying participants from across the world, the conference gathered participants mainly from North America. Almost three-quarters of the about 40 speakers represented nuclear sector companies, including a handful of SMR start-ups. Developers and clients of both light-water and advanced SMR designs presented their ambitious schedules for prototype deployment. In their view, the first micro-SMR would be operating as early as 2026, and the first light-water SMRs by the end of the decade.

SMRs constitute a generic technology category that encompasses a wide range of designs, including both those that rely on light-water-technologies (e.g., NuScale, GE Hitachi, UK Rolls Royce) and a variety of more innovative but largely unproven “advanced” technologies (e.g., molten-salt, sodium-cooled, and high-temperature reactors). The “smallness” of SMRs is highly relative, however, with the output capacity ranging from Rolls Royce’s 470 megawatt electric down to micro-SMRs of 1 to 5 megawatt electric. The promise, therefore, is that SMRs would serve not only as a source of reliable baseload electricity but would also provide space heating, industrial process heat, and electricity for off-grid communities, desalination, hydrogen, and grid stability in the context of a high penetration of renewables in the energy mix.

Necessary but risky promises. More than team building and spirit uplifting, the “SMR 2022” conference was a showcase. As with any technological innovation, the commercial success of SMRs depends on how impactful their storytelling and promises of their virtues and viability will be. A new technology must promise, if not a radiant future, at least significant benefits to society. Key actors must be persuaded that the technology is highly likely to work. Otherwise, investors, decision-makers, potential partners, and the public at large will not accept the inevitable costs and risks. Above all, promising is needed to convince governments to provide the support that has always been vital for the survival of the nuclear industry.

However, promises are much more than talks. Promise discourses generate tangible and lasting impacts by steering investments, triggering policy decisions, and shaping the legitimacy and credibility of actors, projects, and entire industries. It is this interplay between discourses, institutions, and material reality that determines whether promises are fulfilled or not. The history of nuclear energy, as well as that of many other industry sectors, is replete with examples of how promise discourses—such as that underpinning the “Atoms for Peace” program in the 1950s—become part of policy institutions and decisions, are materialized in concrete projects, and thus profoundly shape industry development.

Promising is essential for techno-scientific innovation and development, but it is also risky. Overpromising can lead to disappointment and loss of trust in the technology and its promoters, possibly undermining the reputation of the entire industry. The largely failed promises of third-generation nuclear technologies in the West have arguably done just that. Moreover, as director of nuclear at the Gowling law firm and chairman of the Organization of Canadian Nuclear Industries Ahab Abdel-Aziz noted at the Atlanta conference, the ambitious nuclear plans from the 1960s failed to reach fruition: Even at its highest, in the late 1990s, the installed capacity was “10 times below the anticipated 1960s projection in the United States; six times below that projection globally,” Abdel-Aziz said. Promising can also provoke dysfunctional polarization: The bolder the promises, the more extravagant tend to be the counter-narratives and threat scenarios offered by opponents.

Promises … and doubts. Several Canadian speakers lauded their country’s collaborative approach to SMR development, enshrined in successive national policy documents: a roadmap in 2018, an action plan in 2020, and a cross-provincial strategic plan in 2022. The three-stream approach represents a diversity of SMR designs and applications—from grid-based and off-grid electricity and heat to spent fuel recycling—as well as an ambitious schedule for pilot projects, the first of which is now expected by 2027.

The Canadian example illustrates the benefits of conceptual vagueness and versatility. The term SMR provides a uniting concept and a joint purpose for a range of actors. It allows the failures of specific reactor designs to be described as merely unfortunate exceptions, whereas the success of any individual design can be used to buttress the overall promise of SMRs as a technology.

The high hopes, promises, and optimism expressed by the speakers at the SMR 2022 conference were, however, blended with caveats and doubts. Would the nuclear industry—especially in North America and Europe—be up to the challenge? Creating the demand for SMRs would not be a problem: By some accounts, global electricity demand is expected to double or triple in developed economies by 2050, while at the same time, the United States alone will “turn off 300 Gigawatts of fossil power between now and the end of the 2030s,” noted Chris Levesque from TerraPower, the nuclear venture partly funded by Bill Gates. Referring to an article published in Science in 2004, Ahab Abdel-Aziz argued that to reach even the most modest climate targets by 2060, “you need to triple, at the minimum, the installed [nuclear] capacity in the world; and you need to do it at the pace we did it from 1975 to 1990.” But even just refurbishing or replacing existing reactors is already a huge ask, given that about two-thirds of the current fleet of reactors are 30 years old or older.

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Many speakers and participants worried about whether the industry could respond to such expected massive demand. One area of concern was the industry’s ability to attract the necessary skilled workforce that other industries—including renewable energy companies—also compete for. “How to relaunch an industry, when the US nuclear supply chain is in shambles?” asked Jeffrey Merrifield, a former commissioner of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, now a partner at the Pillsbury law firm. In coffee-break discussions, several senior executives of the nuclear industry doubted whether today’s start-up companies have the necessary resources, especially the requisite skills specific to nuclear technologies.

Repeated calls for greater internal unity and collaboration during the conference suggest that cohesion of the industry could be another Achilles’ heel of the nuclear community. Michael Hewitt, a former US navy officer and currently the CEO of IP3, a company providing energy security expertise, held the collaborative spirit of the defense nuclear industry as a model. “A win for one is a win for all,” Hewitt said. For her part, New Brunswick Power’s environment and engagement manager Claire Harris attributed the progress in Canada’s SMR strategy work to the country’s collaborative spirit. “[Collaboration] is really something we do, and do well,” said Harris.

But the question of collaboration was quickly followed by that of leadership: Who will go first? Which company is prepared to take the first-mover risks, including the costs and uncertainties associated with developing and regulating first-of-a-kind reactors, in the absence of concrete market demand? Some self-declared leaders included NuScale, with its four-, six-, and 12-module (77-megawatt electric output each) concept in the United States; Rolls Royce’s 470-megawatt electric SMR in the United Kingdom; and Ontario Power with its GE Hitachi’s BWRX-300 in Canada. But this would be only the beginning: “Leaders wanted!”, exclaimed Richard Springman, the senior vice president of international projects at Holtec International, a US-based supplier of nuclear reactor parts.

Even if first-movers turn up, many chicken-and-egg problems will remain. Reactor orders can only ramp up after a technology demonstrates its commercial viability. Yet, this demonstration requires not only prototypes but a whole supply chain with factories able to produce SMR modules en masse, to bring costs down. Likewise, making SMRs economically viable would require changing the current case-by-case licensing of reactors, but major regulatory reforms are unlikely so long as SMR license applications are few and far between.

Historical burdens and virtues of the nuclear sector. The doubts concerning the industry’s ability to deliver SMRs reflected a tension common to techno-scientific promising, namely that between novelty and continuity—and the associated diverse interpretations of history. The conference speakers described their favorite SMR designs as groundbreaking—a decisive break away from the past, being cheaper, more nimble, safer, and easier to finance and faster to build. But the same speakers then went on to stress that SMRs were simply a continuation of the good old tried and tested nuclear technologies: The supply chain and willing host communities on former nuclear- and coal-power sites are there, and the industry has a proven track record in delivering reactors quickly, provided adequate political leadership, many speakers argued. While this is certainly a valid argument for light-water reactors, the case is more difficult to make for advanced SMRs.

Advocates of advanced designs, such as Brett Plummer from Canada-based utility New Brunswick Power and Caroline Cochran from California-based start-up Oklo, described the long history of fast breeders as a success story of 400 reactor-years of accumulated safe operation. This interpretation of history went unchallenged in Atlanta, but critics would argue that the history of fast breeder reactors has instead been a tortuous road to nowhere.

In their portrayal of history, speakers like Ahab Abdel-Aziz and Michael Hewitt went all the way back to the birth of the industry. Hewitt boldly stated: “we have a long, successful history of excellence and the ability to perform, unlike most industries.” Both referred to President Eisenhower’s famous speech at the United Nations in 1953 ushering in the Atoms for Peace program to build both credibility and legitimacy for the SMR promise. Where the program had promised to harness destructive military technology to the betterment of humankind, speakers in Atlanta used the pressing electricity, heating, and drinking water needs of today’s fast-growing world population to justify the deployment of SMRs even in developing countries with no prior experience in the nuclear sector.

How far to go with government support? The general ethos in Atlanta was something like “yes, we can deliver, provided that the requisite political leadership and government support are there.” One speaker after another used the war in Ukraine as an example of why nuclear energy, and SMRs in particular, were a national security issue and therefore deserve government support. Along these lines, the US ambassador to the IAEA, Laura Holgate, claimed that government support to the US nuclear industry would be necessary if American companies were to compete on at least a reasonably level playing field with their Chinese, Russian, and other government-backed companies.

New Brunswick Power’s Brett Plummer encapsulated the cry for help in a rather long wish list of the areas in which the government would have to create “specific policies and financing.” These would include loan guarantees and financial backstops; the supply of high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel for advanced reactors; reprocessing, management, and transportation of spent fuel; as well as bridging the gap from first-of-a-kind reactors to commercial deployment.

Optimists, like Carolyn Cochran from Oklo believe that government backing, in the form of financing or partnerships, for a first-of-a-kind SMR prototype would suffice to “really catapult to a large deployment” and convince potential customers. TerraPower’s Chris Levesque was slightly more cautious, estimating that a handful of demonstration projects in Canada and the United States this decade could lead to “serial production by the end of the decade.”

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On the face of it, even this view seems highly optimistic. At the recent Canadian parliamentary hearings on SMR prospects, David Novog, a professor of nuclear engineering at the MacMaster University, placed the threshold slightly higher, predicting “that once we start reaching 10, 12 or 14, we will learn enough that we’ll be able to do it effectively.” M.V. Ramana, a professor at the University of British Columbia, was far more pessimistic, estimating that one “would have to build somewhere between several hundred and several thousand” SMR units before learning and replication would truly set in and ensure commercial viability.

The question of how much and for how long governments would have to support SMR development remains wide open.

Streamlining regulation. There are few areas of SMR development where the role of the government is as vital as in safety regulation. The need to streamline and harmonize regulation was a topic that popped up in just about every session of the conference. Even though the emerging collaboration between the US and Canadian regulators—the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC)—received general acclaim, it also raised some eyebrows. Representatives of both regulators stated they do not wish to “stand in the way of innovation.” The CNSC director Rumina Velshi was adamant about the need for “regulatory efficiency and regulatory readiness,” defining the CNSC’s overall objectives as “regulatory certainty, predictability, [and] efficiency.” This led some of Velshi’s fellow countrymen to murmur—over drinks—that the safety authority should ensure the plants are safe, not that the industry stays afloat.

A senior industry representative at a panel went further than Velshi, lamenting that the nuclear community has “allowed too much democracy to get in, and produced these very baroque processes that are involved in permitting upfront.” To deploy SMRs at the needed scale and pace would therefore require “hacking some of this nonsense out of the front and actually making decisions rational.” Echoing this mistrust of public participation, Ahab Abdel-Aziz portrayed overregulation as the main culprit for the industry’s troubles ever since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Regulation should be guided by science, not by “irrational fears and political expediency,” he argued.

Not all agreed, however. Greg Cullen, of the US utility Energy Northwest, rejected the claim that “too much democracy” would be a problem for SMRs, stressing instead that the industry needs a “regulator in which the public has confidence.” Tim Stone of the UK Nuclear Industry Association, and Claire Cameron, director of the NEA technology and economics division, both worried about a possible stalling of SMR expansion in newcomer countries that lack the nuclear experience and robust institutions needed for regulatory harmonization. They wondered where to find the resources and political will, nationally and internationally, to build up this institutional capacity. One might add that not all current nuclear countries may willingly let the US and Canadian regulators dictate the conditions of harmonization and standardization—and thereby let these two countries secure a competitive edge for their own nuclear industries.

Promises and counter-promises. For the SMR community that gathered in Atlanta, the conference was a moment of great hope and opportunity, not least thanks to the aggravating climate and energy security crises. But the road toward the fulfilment of the boldest SMR promises will be long, as is the list of the essential preconditions. To turn SMR promises into reality, the nuclear community will need no less than to achieve sufficient internal cohesion, attract investors, navigate through licensing processes, build up supply chains and factories for module manufacturing, win community acceptance on greenfield sites, demonstrate a workable solution to waste management, and reach a rate of deployment sufficient to trigger learning and generate economies of replication. Most fundamentally, governments would need to be persuaded to provide the many types of support SMRs require to deliver on their promises.

Promising of the kind seen at the conference is essential for the achievement of these objectives. The presentations and discussions in the corridors indeed ran the full gamut of promise-building, from the conviction of a dawning nuclear renaissance along the lines “this time, it will be different!” through the hope of SMRs as a solution to the net-zero and energy-security challenges, and all the way to specific affirmations hailing the virtues of individual SMR designs. The legitimacy and credibility of these claims were grounded in the convictions largely shared among the participants that renewables alone “just don’t cut it,” that the SMR supply chain is there, and that the nuclear industry has in the past shown its ability to rise to similar challenges.

Two questions appear as critical for the future of SMRs. First, despite the boost from the Ukraine crisis, it is uncertain whether SMR advocates can muster the political will and societal acceptance needed to turn SMRs into a commercial success. The economic viability of the SMR promise will crucially depend on how much further down the road towards deglobalization, authoritarianism in its various guises, and further tweaking of the energy markets the Western societies are willing to go. Although the heyday of neoliberalism is clearly behind us and government intervention is no longer the kind of swearword it was before the early 2000s, nothing guarantees that the nuclear euphoria following the Atoms for Peace program in the 1950s can be replicated. Moreover, the reliance of the SMR business case on complex global supply chains as well as on massive deployment and geographical dispersion of nuclear facilities creates its own geopolitical vulnerabilities and security problems.

Second, the experience from techno-scientific promising in a number of sectors has shown that to be socially robust, promises need constructive confrontation with counter-promises. In this regard, the Atlanta conference constituted somewhat of a missed opportunity. The absence of critical voices reflected a longstanding problem of the nuclear community recognized even by insiders—namely its unwillingness to embrace criticism and engage in constructive debate with sceptics. “Safe spaces” for internal debates within a like-minded community certainly have their place, yet in the current atmosphere of increasing hype, the SMR promise needs constructive controversy and mistrust more than ever.

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Tomas Kåberger
Tomas Kåberger
1 year ago

Thank you Markku Lehtonen for an elegant review of the sentiments within the SMR enthusiast community. But what about costs per MWh of electricity? Indirectly you indicate that SMR implementation would require an end to market economy and competition in the electricity sector. But how bad is it? Large reactors produce electricity 2 to 10 times as expensive as solar and wind depending on country according to reviews such and BNEF. The lower end of the range is from countries with state controlled development. If small reactors initially will give electricity 2 to 5 times more expensive than large reactors… Read more »

Markku Lehtonen
1 year ago

Well, I shouldn’t talk on behalf of the industry, but I’ll make an attempt, mainly on the basis of what I heard in Atlanta. The presenters obviously did not provide precise cost calculations, and any such estimates would be highly uncertain and conditional on the basic assumptions, anyhow. However, generally, the speakers at Atlanta stressed the system costs and built their argument on the basic assumption that once you reach a certain threshold of renewables in your grid, the costs will grow exponentially, unless you add stable (low-carbon) baseload generation (read: nuclear). According to these nuclear advocates, the current market… Read more »

Colin Megson
Colin Megson
1 year ago

GE Hitachi taking on a $65.5 million per year wages bill with 500 new employees, for the manufacture of their 300 MW BWRX-300 SMR:

Roll-Royce SMR Ltd. taking on a £22.5 million per year wages bill with 500 new employees, for the manufacture of their 470 MW UK SMR:

2 SMRs that are way, way beyond the ‘promises’ and ‘paper reactor’ stages. Both of these reactors will be operational before 2030 and both companies will be turning out at least 2 per year in the early stages.

Markku Lehtonen
1 year ago
Reply to  Colin Megson

I would disagree to the extent that even the first SMR projects, applying light-water reactor designs, are still a few years from deployment. The article takes shortcuts and simplifies the argument, but it nevertheless underlines that promise-construction is much more than about discourse and rhetoric – promises are made of discourses, institutions, and material artefacts. Promises are not the same as “paper reactors”, and indeed NuScale, Rolls-Royce and GE Hitatchi are far ahead of, for example, the advanced-SMR designs in terms of institutionalisation and materialisation of the promise. But even these frontrunner projects are far from a stage of being… Read more »

Mitch Mcfarland
Mitch Mcfarland
1 year ago

Included in this quite long article are merely 7 words referencing the main problem with nuclear technology:  demonstrate a workable solution to waste management

Markku Lehtonen
1 year ago

Yes, indeed, waste is certainly a highly relevant issue, but as you mention, the piece is already (too?) long, and I had to make choices on what to include. I ended up cutting out the section on waste – including the paragraph in the conclusions highlighting waste management as one of the potential main challenges for the SMR future.   Having said that, waste did not figure among the most widely debated issues at the conference. Obviously, the Gen IV advanced-SMR advocates highlighted the presumed ability of their favourite designs to greatly alleviate the waste problem. These claims went largely… Read more »