home Nuclear Attitude, Nuclear Technology, U Emerging small nuclear reactors may significantly contribute to grid decarbonization by 2050: study

Emerging small nuclear reactors may significantly contribute to grid decarbonization by 2050: study

Dive Brief:

  • Small domestic advanced nuclear reactors could play a major role in decarbonizing electricity in the U.S. by providing carbon-free energy, balancing out solar and wind resources, and being installed at shuttered coal and other fossil plants, according to a study released July 6 by the Breakthrough Institute.


  • These alternatives to large-scale nuclear reactors also were touted by Breakthrough representatives during a June 30 webinar for their ability to provide carbon-free heat and steam to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the industrial and chemical sectors. But the initial costs, as with many emerging technologies, are steep and require a large amount of capital investments, sooner rather than later, experts say.


  • Breakthrough estimated that costs will fall with increased deployment. But other barriers that need to come down, Breakthrough said, are state laws prohibiting or restricting new nuclear plants to allow installations of small reactors in various geographical regions.

Dive Insight:

Advanced nuclear reactor technologies up to 345 MW under development may skirt the problems of large nuclear plants when it comes to cost overruns, construction delays and risks of accidents, said Jigar Shah, director of the Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office. They also may help provide zero emissions to the power system at a lower cost by mid-century, he and other speakers added at a June 30 Breakthrough Institute webinar presenting new modeling results.

The modeling by Vibrant Clean Energy looked at 150 MW light-water Small Modular Reactors, or SMRs, 345 MW advanced reactors with thermal energy storage and 80 MW high-temperature gas reactors.

These technologies at scale could provide 19 to 48 GW in 2035 across the U.S. and reach up to 470 GW by 2050, according to Adam Stein, Breakthrough’s director for Nuclear Energy and Innovation.

However, for this to happen, there must be many new nuclear deployments in the late 2020s and early 2030s, Shah said.“We cannot miss this moment,” he said during the webinar.

But meeting that timeline “is not going to happen,” said M.V. Ramana, nuclear energy and fissile materials expert, and University of British Columbia Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs. He told Utility Dive this emerging industry has significant economies of scale challenges compared to large nuclear plants and thus higher costs per megawatt, requiring hundreds or thousands of units to be built and under contract to become significant players in the market.

During the webinar, Shah acknowledged that the industry faces “significant headwinds” because of limited orders, putting the needed capital for ramping up production currently out of reach. The hope is “that a group of forward-thinking utilities will come forward and commit to preordering units so that the market can respond,” he added.

NuScale Power, the first SMR company to go public and considered the farthest along in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s approval process, hopes to have its first project online by the end of this decade. It signed an agreement with the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems in 2017 and subsequently modified the project. It now will entail a dozen 50 MW SMRs compared to the initial six of 77 MW each. It also extended the online date to 2029 from an initial 2024.

Significant capital investments necessary to advance the construction of small, mini and microreactors to the finish line add up to $150 billion to $220 billion by 2035, and $830 billion to $1.1 trillion by 2050, according to Vibrant Clean Energy’s model, Breakthrough’s Stein said. Those investment levels are needed to incorporate a significant amount of advanced nuclear reactors into a carbon-free grid in the U.S., according to the new study.

In the U.S., the DOE has $11 billion in funding to advance the development of these technologies, but most of the applications are for the nuclear supply chain, Shah said.

Installing the small reactors at closing coal plants is “a natural place to start,” using some of the infrastructure and potentially protecting jobs and the tax base of those communities, he added.

Nuclear developer TerraPower, funded by Bill Gates, plans to build a 345 MW sodium-cooled fast nuclear reactor demonstration project near a coal plant in western Wyoming scheduled to retire in 2025. The company announced in November that it will submit construction permit applications to federal nuclear regulators in mid-2023.

Stein said the initial construction costs of advanced reactors are high but are projected to fall with lessons learned from expanded commercial deployments, similar to the solar energy industry’s trajectory.

A Vibrant Clean Energy June 17 study using the same modeling estimated a price of $3,800 per kW for small advanced reactors if key factors, from supply chains to the workforce, are robust, or $5,500KW if those factors are “sluggish.”

But Ramana said the likelihood of advanced reactor costs falling is nil given the history of nuclear plant developments. “There is no precedent in history for nuclear costs going down,” he said. Over the last few decades, the cost of all the various nuclear plants has risen because of safety issues cropping up during operations

Source: Utility Dive