Small modular reactors are in the news again. They have been picking up momentum ever since the much ballyhooed “nuclear renaissance” proclaimed early in the decade of the aughts flopped. Despite abundant financial subsidies and square miles of newsprint singing the praises of new nuclear power, only two of the more than 30 large new reactors announced during the height of the “renaissance” are being built; and those two are long delayed and hugely over budget; neither is complete. Enter small modular reactors, including hitherto untested designs. Proponents suggest they will address the well-known problems of nuclear power, including high costs, risk of severe accidents, and production of radioactive waste and become a principal component of the zero-carbon-emissions electricity system that is required to limit climate change. Let us consider these claims.
The word “small” in small modular reactors has generally come to mean a capacity of less than 300 megawatts (MW) of electricity (IAEA 2020, 1); (Bill Gates’s favorite Natrium design comes in a little higher at 345 MW). Typical present-day power reactors are several times larger—in the 1,000 to 1,600 MW range. Most small modular reactor proposals involve installing several modules at a single site so that the site’s total power generation capacity would be broadly similar to a large reactor. However, there are a few proposals for reactors to be used in isolation, typically in low-demand remote areas.
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