New studies from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) conclude that small modular reactors may hold the key to the future of U.S. nuclear power generation. The reports assess the economic feasibility of classical, gigawatt-scale reactors and the possible new generation of modular reactors. The smaller modular reactors as considered would have generating capacities of 600 megawatts or less, would be factory-built as modular components, and then shipped to their desired location for assembly.

As a beginning point on other news this week, the reports followed up a 2004 University of Chicago study on the economic future of nuclear energy. The 2004 study concluded that the nuclear energy industry would need financial incentives from the federal government in order to build new plants that could compete with coal and gas fired plants.

The other news this week is the realization by many that the Obama appointment of Gregory Jaczko, to Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should be removed.  A petition drive is underway at, following an inspector general’s report released last June that said Jaczko intimidated staff members who disagreed with him and withheld information from members of the commission to gain their support. The report also said several high-ranking employees at the independent agency complained that Chairman Jaczko delayed and hindered their work on important projects.

The inspector general report times well with the four experienced and well-educated nuclear energy professional commissioners, who among them can count close to 100 years of working with nuclear reactors, nuclear safety analysis, nuclear propulsion plants, advanced nuclear energy research and development, and nuclear project management, that have signed a letter addressed to the Chief of Staff of the President of the United States detailing their frustration with the leadership style and decision making processes used by the 41-year-old, politically-appointed Chairman.

Its far past time for Jaczko to return to Congress where his skill set can be hidden more effectively.

Back out in Chicago the newest University of Chicago report is clear, “It would be a huge stimulus for high-valued job growth, restore U.S. leadership in nuclear reactor technology and, most importantly, strengthen U.S. leadership in a post-Fukushima world, on matters of nuclear safety, nuclear security, nonproliferation, and nuclear waste management.”

Robert Rosner, the EPIC director and the William Wrather Distinguished Service Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics, sums the obvious and now well proven with, “Clearly, a robust commercial SMR industry is highly advantageous to many sectors in the United States.”

The earlier report, “Analysis of GW-scale Overnight Costs,” updates the overnight cost estimates of the 2004 report. Overnight costs are the estimated costs if you were to build a new large reactor ‘overnight,’ that is, using current input prices and excluding the cost of financing. It would now cost $4,210 per kilowatt to build a new gigawatt-scale reactor, according to the new report. This cost is approximately $2,210 per kilowatt higher than the 2004 estimate because of commodity price changes and other factors.  A near doubling in just 7 years.

The problem is explained in part by Center for Strategic and International Studies CEO John Hamre who said that economic issues have hindered the construction of new large-scale reactors in the United States. The key challenge facing the industry is the seven-to-nine-year gap between making a commitment to build a nuclear plant and revenue generation.  “This is a real problem.” Hamre said.  Few companies can afford to wait that long to see a return on the $10 billion investment.  Nor can the ratepayers. But the advent of the small modular reactor “offers the promise of factory construction efficiencies and a much shorter timeline.”

That could be so if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would be at work executing on its mandate.

This could be a huge economic development opportunity.  Small modular reactors could be especially appealing for markets that could not easily accommodate gigawatt-scale plants, such as those currently served by aging, 200- to 400-megawatt coal plants, which are likely to be phased out during the next decade.

The other hand holds some problems.  The new modular designs in mass production affecting price reductions depends partly on how quickly manufacturers can learn to build them efficiently. “The faster you learn, the better off you are in the long term because you get to the point where you actually start making money faster,” Rosner noted.

It’s the risk that matters.  Nuclear is vastly more capital demanding than natural gas.  Should efficiency continue its trend, or a new technology breakout, or the economy drift lower and slower, having a huge capital investment waiting years to build, more years to recover the investment, with rates indeterminate sets an investor up for a generation’s worth of worry.

Yet the new reactors could be the low capital investment leaders if the stage were to be set for the good of the nation over the fears of the fools.


3 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on December 14, 2011 7:44 AM

    This is a great option – unless LENR is for real. If LENR is viable, then only aneutronic fusion like a polywell or focus fusion device would be worth pursuing.

  2. John on December 14, 2011 2:59 PM

    Thorium LFTR is worth more than Polywell or Focus (I like both) since we already know it works and it is highly scaleable as well as having a fuel position 400x better than Uranium reactors. Still I’ll take any of the SMR design too over the Greenpeace option of freezing to death hungry!

  3. stan m on January 17, 2012 2:09 PM

    the travelling wave reactor would require no refueling during operation and burns depleated uranium or waste.

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