Can Small Modular Reactors Solve Nuclear’s Image Problem?

January 6, 2021

By Eric Scheuch

Nuclear energy has an image problem: it is the least popular energy source in the United States other than coal, according to a September 2020 Morning Consult poll. In that poll, just 16% of respondents thought that the U.S. should build any new reactors. Nuclear's popularity took a nosedive after the 1979 Three Mile Island Accident, took a further hit after the 2011 Fukushima accident, and has never recovered. What drives such unpopularity? The MIT study on The Future of Nuclear Power found that the main sources of unpopularity are concerns about 1. Nuclear waste 2. Cost and 3. Safety. It found that those concerns were durable enough that “The U.S. public is unlikely to support nuclear power expansion without substantial improvements in costs and technology”

In the decade since that study was published, there have been substantial improvements in technology that may provide a chance for a renaissance for the image of nuclear energy in the eyes of the American public. Public opinion on nuclear energy matters because polls are a key driver of government policy, and any expansion of nuclear power facilities is likely to rely upon governmental support, from loan guarantee programs to grants for research and development. No technology has more potential to help rehabilitate nuclear’s image than small modular reactors (SMRs). 2020, in particular, was a banner year for SMR technology, with the NRC approving its first-ever SMR design, from Oregon-based NuScale, and numerous other companies making improvements on their own designs. 

While SMRs are obviously an improvement over traditional nuclear in terms of technology, there is also evidence that they may represent an improvement in cost as well: notable, given that public support for future nuclear power expansion is likely dependent upon improvements in both cost and technology. Many designs are still in the early stages, and not yet competitive in cost terms with existing technology, but there are signs of cost improvement: last month, for example, NuScale announced a 25% per-unit increase in power output for their SMR design, which would lead to significant cost savings. And early projections indicate that once SMRs are brought to market, they could have a construction cost up to 60% cheaper than traditional reactors. Since the construction costs of power plants are, by design, recouped through the price of their electricity, that could lead to significant cost savings for consumers. And as anyone who has ever watched videos of Black Friday shopping knows, cheaper is often a recipe for popularity.

In addition to offering improvements in technology and cost, SMRs offer an improvement on the already high level of safety offered by current reactors. In a 2018 finding, the NRC ruled that SMRs were likely to be safer than current reactors, with correspondingly smaller emergency zones. This matters, not only because safety is one of the top public concerns about existing nuclear power, but because lower safety risks mean a streamlined licensing process, and a corresponding lower startup cost. The fact that the finding came from the NRC—the main licensing body for nuclear reactors in the United States—further increases the likelihood of those cost savings becoming reality. 

Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of Three Mile Island. For most of the intervening years, nuclear power has been deeply unpopular, and the development of new nuclear facilities has been correspondingly stagnant. By offering improvements in technology, cost, and safety, small modular reactors may help redeem the image of nuclear in the eyes of the public, and help encourage the growth of a new generation of nuclear energy.

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