Not As Advertised: Alberta is going Nuclear — but is it worth the cost?

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash.

Jason Kenney’s Alberta is heading towards a future partially powered by nuclear with small modular reactors (SMRs).

Last year, Alberta Premier Kenney announced that they were signing on to an existing memorandum of understanding with Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick.

At the time he said the province hopes the nuclear technology will allow the government to create jobs, diversify the economy, provide power to remote communities and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This whole goal of course is to meet the guidelines of their agenda to be “net zero” emissions by 2050. Or in other words, abolish fossil fuels like oil that are already bountiful in the province.

But Alberta does have lots of uranium — according to Alberta’s Minister of Energy, Sonya Savage.

“Many people are probably not aware that Alberta is also home to one of the greatest uranium resources in the entire world,” she said in a CBC article.

The article says the Athabasca basin straddles the northern Alberta-Saskatchewan border and has an enormous and reliable supply of fuel for SMRs.

Nuclear SMRs & traditional reactors

A traditional reactor in Canada will typically generate around 800 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 600,000 homes at a single given time as long (assuming every 750 homes can be powered by one megawatt).

For SMRs, it’s a much lower number — a measly 200 to 300 megawatts of electricity.

SMRs are small enough to be transported on a ship, train or truck and has been heavily suggested by the feds as a safer alternative to traditional nuclear.

They’re designed to produce less nuclear waste than larger reactors, but disposal of that waste still remains an issue.

Canada doesn’t yet have a permanent nuclear waste repository, but the Nuclear Waste Management Organization is currently working to select a location. The solution may be deep geologic repository (burying it deep underground).

An illustration of a NuScale Power Module on a truck. (Photo from NuScale Power.)

NuScale Power is the company behind the SMR’s. Their website says their 12-module NuScale power plant will produce 924 megawatts, while they also offer other sizes like their six-module (462 megawatts) and their 4-module (308 megawatts).

They also estimate the cost of a 12-module would be $2,850 (when considering the overnight capital costs of the facility on a per kilowatt basis.

But it’s kind of a facade — here’s why.

SMRs not as advertised

An article from The Environmental Working Group, an organization that describes themselves as “working to protect our environmental health by changing industry standards” outlines various reasons why these SMRs aren’t all they’re being advertised as.

The article is called “Why Small Modular Nuclear Reactors Won’t Help Counter the Climate Crisis,” and while written from a climate catastrophe perspective — it still has many valid points about the new nuclear technology.

The article sites that back in the 50’s and 60’s, many of the small reactors that were built in the U.S. were shutdown due to the economic penalty for the smaller sized reactors.

“Nuclear reactors are large because of economies of scale. A reactor that produces three times as much power as an SMR does not need three times as much steel or three times as many workers,” reads the EWG article.

Those touting SMRs claim the modularity and factory manufacturing would compensate for the poorer economics of small reactors. Mass production of components and their manufacture in assembly lines will cut costs.

“Further, a comparable cost per kilowatt, the argument goes, would mean far lower costs for each small reactor, reducing overall capital requirements for the purchaser,” reads the article.

They state in the article that we aren’t exactly there yet in the mass manufacturing side of SMRs — so we haven’t exactly cut costs yet. They say the “road will be rocky.”

“Even with optimistic assumptions about how quickly manufacturers could learn to improve production efficiency and lower cost, thousands of SMRs, which would all be higher priced in comparison to large reactors, would have to be manufactured for the price per kilowatt for an SMR to be comparable to that of a large reactor,” reads the article under Economics and scale.

When they point to history, they suggest that the cost per kilowatt may never decrease whatsoever. They also point to higher costs of production regardless of its tiny size.

“Newer reactors have been, on the whole, more expensive than earlier ones. And while the cost per SMR will be lower due to much smaller size, several reactors would typically be installed at a single site, raising total project costs for the purchaser again.”

The article points to hypotheticals of errors in mass-manufactured goods citing the recalls of the Boeing 737 Max and the 787 Dreamliner jetliners where the whole lot was recalled.

“If an error in a mass-manufactured reactor were to result in safety problems, the whole lot might have to be recalled …  But how does one recall a radioactive reactor? What will happen to an electricity system that relies on factory-made identical reactors that need to be recalled?”

They state from a cellphone to a jet aircraft, recalls are “predictable and consistent” part of mass manufacturing. For the nuclear industry however these questions have yet to be addressed.

You would definitely hope there would be an incredibly high level of quality control for anything nuclear related.

But according to EWG, this problem isn’t exactly theoretical.

They cite two reactors that were permanently shut down in San Onofre, California and in Crystal River, Florida where they needed a replacement of steam generators.

“One of the big economic problems of pressurized water reactors, the design commonly chosen for light water SMRs, including the NuScale design … was the need to prematurely replace the steam generators – the massive, expensive heat exchangers where the high-pressure hot water from the reactor is converted to the steam that drives the turbine-generators.”

(Image from a online source.)

They state that several SMR light water designs place place steam generators inside the reactor vessel and that the replacement of one would be “exceedingly difficult at best” — but problems could result in permanent reactor shutdown.

NuScale’s Normal System Operation includes the use of steam generators inside the reactor vessel.

NuScale’s increasing SMR costs

The graph below shows NuScale’s increasing capital cost and two SMRs in other countries.

Photo from EWG’s article.

“As a result, the total cost of a proposed project in Idaho using the NuScale design has already risen from around $3 billion [USD], in 2015, to $6.1 billion [USD], in 2020, long before any concrete has been poured.”

The timeline — 10 years?

The Minister of Energy in Alberta says the technology is still evolving and that it isn’t expected for at least a decade — if not longer.

“This is still an emerging technology. It’s in its early stages of design and development,” Savage said in a CBC article.

“As we continue to take actions to support Alberta’s economic recovery to get past the COVID crisis, Alberta’s government promises to explore all opportunities that could diversify our economy and create jobs,” Kenney said in his announcement last year.

With this knowledge, at least the people of Alberta now know they have about 10 years before the SMRs are even put in place.

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