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Swiss chalet-ing of nuclear power. So cute, so neat, so lethal…

New Nuclear

Small Modular Nuclear Reactors


The Nuclear Renaissance – Between 2007 and 2009, 13 companies applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for construction and operating licenses to build a combined total of 31 new nuclear power reactors in the U.S. However, most of the proposed 31 nuclear power reactors were cancelled, with only Vogtle 3 and 4 in Waynesboro, Georgia ultimately being built at more than twice the original budgeted amount.

Although there were multiple reasons for cancellations, as indicated above, one of the primary reasons was the immense cost to build large nuclear power reactors.

By 2009, with the nuclear renaissance starting to fizzle, the nuclear industry began promoting smaller modular nuclear reactors, which they claimed would be safer and much more economical than large nuclear power reactors. Small modular nuclear reactors (SMNRs) are designed to be built in one location, such as a factory, and then shipped, commissioned and operated on a different site. SMNRs are typically anticipated to have an electrical power output of less than 300 megawatts electric (MWe) vs 1,000 MWe or more for large nuclear power reactors.

One of the first SMNRs was the mPower at 180 MWe. The mPower was designed by BWXT, a subsidiary of which, Fluor-BWTX, is currently managing the clean-up at the Portsmouth Nuclear Site (PORTS) just south of Piketon, Ohio. The mPower began pre-application interaction with the NRC in 2009 but was suspended in 2014 and cancelled in 2017.

Currently, there are more than 80 SMNR designs under development in 19 countries.

Announced for Ohio is the Aurora Powerhouse, a 15 MWe SMNR designed by Oklo, a Santa Carla, California-based advanced nuclear reactor technology firm. Oklo has recently signed an agreement to build two Aurora Powerhouse SMNRs on land owned by the Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative (SODI), a Community Reuse Organization (CRO) created by the Department of Energy (DOE) to re-industrialize land on and around PORTS. Construction of these SMNRs will most likely be heavily dependent upon taxpayer funding through DOE.

The Oklo Aurora Powerhouse (OAP) small modular nuclear reactor (SMNR) proposed for the Portsmouth Nuclear Site has numerous challenges it must overcome prior to becoming a reality. Given that it must first be developed and tested at the Idaho National Laboratory, commercial feasibility is a decade or more away on the most optimistic timeline, and probably much longer than that.

Modeled after the Experimental Breeder Reactor II, shutdown in 1994, the OAP SMNR will be a fast-neutron breeder reactor that will use liquid-sodium as a coolant, which is highly corrosive, reacts violently to water and ignites if exposed to air. Unfortunately, fast breeders also have problems with rapidly unfolding accident scenarios that can get badly out of control in milliseconds and even explode.

For this and other reasons, the OAP SMNR will be buried according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and is designed to operate for 20 years without needing to be refueled. The problem of keeping air from coming into contact with the sodium coolant makes refueling extremely difficult and time consuming, so the OAP SMNR will probably be abandoned after 20 years.

Given the startup expenses, risks of technological failure or inadequacy, dangers of poisoned power such as nuclear, unhelpful lead time, limited useful life, and burial in fractured bedrock, the OAP SMNR is not a logical or viable option as climate urgency builds.