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Opinion: The Big Problem With Small Nuclear Reactors

July 20, 2023 by Paul Hockenos

In recent years, the nuclear power lobby and its advocates have begun to sing a new song. They have bailed on the monstrous reactors of the 20th century — not because of safety or toxic waste concerns, but because of the reactors’ exorbitant expense and ponderous rollout schedules. And they have switched their allegiance to a next generation nuclear fission technology: small modular reactors, which they claim will help rescue our warming planet, as well as the nuclear power industry— once they exist.

Respected thinkers such as former U.S. president Barack Obama, French president Emmanuel Macron, and Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates have toasted the idea of small modular reactors, or SMRs, as a potentially reliable, almost-emissions-free backup to intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Advocates claim that because SMRs will be smaller than the giants that currently dominate horizons, they will be safer, cheaper, and quicker to build. Although SMRs will have only a fraction of the power-generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors, proponents envision that they will, one day, be assembled in factories and transported as a unit to sites — like Sears’ mail-order Modern Homes of the early 1900s.

Currently, half of the states in the EU, both major political parties in the U.S, and the five BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — have indicated that they want to split atoms for the purpose of generating energy. U.S. President Joe Biden included billions of dollars in tax credits for nuclear energy in the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Gates has gone so far as to invest a chunk of his fortune in a firm he founded, TerraPower, a leading nuclear innovation company. But despite the prodigious chatter, the endeavor to blanket the Earth with SMRs is a Hail Mary pass that’s very unlikely to succeed.

Granted, it is certainly a step in the right direction that most observers now see the postwar, giga-watt-scale water-cooled reactors as obsolete. When constructed new, these behemoths generate electricity at up to nine times the cost of large-scale solar and onshore wind facilities, and can take well over a decade to get up and running. Perhaps for this reason, there has been one, and only one, new nuclear power project initiated in the U.S. since construction began on the last one 50 years ago: a two-reactor expansion of the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia. The first of the reactors came online this yearseven years behind schedule. The staggering $35 billion cost for the pair is more than twice the original projection.

But SMRs are just as likely to face similar delays and cost overruns. Currently, there are just two existing advanced SMR facilities in the world that could be reasonably described as SMRs: a pilot reactor in China and Russia’s diminutive Akademik Lomonosov. More small reactors are under construction in China, Russia, and Argentina, but all of them are proving even more expensive per kilowatt than traditional reactors.

It’s worth noting that in the U.S., and everywhere else in the world, nuclear policy relies heavily on subsidies to be economically competitive. Starting next year, utilities operating nuclear facilities in the U.S. can qualify for a tax credit of $15 per megawatt-hour — a break that could be worth up to $30 billion for the industry as a whole. However, even these giveaways won’t reduce the projected costs of SMR-generated electricity to anywhere near the going prices of wind and solar power.

In the U.S., the only SMR developer with a design approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is NuScale, which plans to deploy six modules at one site in Idaho that will together generate less electricity than a smallish standard nuclear reactor. So far, however, NuScale has yet to lay a single brick. Its biggest win to date is securing $4 billion in federal tax subsidies. In January of this year, NuScale announced plans to sell electricity not at $58 per megawatt-hour, as originally pledged, but at $89 per megawatt-hour, citing higher than anticipated construction costs. The new projection is nearly twice the average global cost of utility-scale solar and onshore wind, according to calculations by BloombergNEF. And without the government subsidies, NuScale’s price tag would be that much higher.

In fact, there’s a fair chance that not a single NuScale SMR will ever be built: The company has said it will not begin construction until 80 percent of its expected generation capacity is subscribed, and currently buyers have signed up for less than a quarter of the plant’s capacity.

Gates’s TerraPower has an even longer way to go, although it too is cashing in on subsidies. The U.S. Department of Energy has pledged up to $2 billion in matching funds to construct a demonstration plant in Wyoming. Yet TerraPower recently announced it’s facing delays of at least two years because of difficulties securing uranium fuel from its lone supplier: Russia.

Even if the unlikely rollout of SMRs eventually happens, it will unfold too late to curb the climate crisis. And the reactors will face many of the same safety and radioactive waste concerns that plagued their larger counterparts, if only at smaller scales. Meanwhile, the siren song of nuclear energy is diverting critical resources from the urgent task of building out clean technologies. And the idea that nuclear reactors would serve as “backups” for wind and solar is misguided because the reactors can’t be ramped up and down quickly.

One is left to wonder why it is that intelligent people like Gates and Obama are running down this rabbit hole?

I think it’s because they understand the chilling imperative of the climate crisis, and its scope. They’re panicked, and rightly so. In nuclear energy, they see a miracle-like, low-carbon power source that they know, and that can serve a million customers at a time. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, they don’t trust renewables and smart energy systems to get the job done.

But that is where they err. The technology of the future is already here. Clean wind and solar energy — coupled with updated smart grids, expanded storage capacity, hydrogen technology, virtual power plants, and demand response strategies — can work. Our energy systems of the future will look like a patchwork quilt, with diverse energy sources kicking in at different times during the day, and with the mix differing from one day to the next.

Bill Gates and like-minded innovators should put their minds and fortunes to work on this futuristic project of the present — and leave the 20th century relic that is nuclear power in the past, where it belongs.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based writer who covers energy and climate topics.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.

Texas nuclear waste storage permit invalidated by US appeals court

August 25, 2023

By Clark Mindock, Reuters

(Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Friday canceled a license granted by a federal agency to a company to build a temporary nuclear waste storage facility in western Texas, which the Republican-led state has argued would be dangerous to build in one of the nation’s largest oil basins.

A three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission lacked the authority under federal law to issue permits for private, temporary nuclear waste storage sites.

The license, which was issued in 2021 to project developer Interim Storage Partners LLC, was challenged by Texas as well as west Texas oil and gas interests that opposed the facility.

U.S. Circuit Judge James Ho, writing for the court, agreed with Texas that the Atomic Energy Act does not give the agency the broad authority “to license a private, away-from-reactor storage facility for spent nuclear fuel.”

Ho, an appointee of Republican President Donald Trump, said a license for that kind of a facility also conflicts with a U.S. law called the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which prioritizes permanent storage solutions and otherwise allows temporary storage of nuclear waste only at reactors themselves or at federal sites.

Representatives for the NRC, Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s office and the developer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Abbott and other state officials had petitioned the court in 2021 to review the order by the agency authorizing Interim Storage Partners to receive and store up to 5,000 metric tons of spent fuel and about 230 metric tons of low-level radioactive waste for 40 years at a planned repository in Andrews County, Texas.

Abbott opposed the plan, saying he would not let Texas become “America’s nuclear waste dumping ground.”

The plan for a temporary facility was devised in order to address a growing nuclear waste problem in the United States. The Andrews County site was chosen after efforts to build a permanent storage facility in Nevada fell apart amid fierce local opposition.

(Reporting by Clark Mindock in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)

Fair Use Notice
This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. SEED Coalition is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability, human rights, economic democracy and social justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a “fair use” of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond “fair use”, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Will New Mexico’s new law stop a proposed nuclear waste dump?

May 3, 2023
By Hannah Grover and Searchlight New Mexico

This story was written in collaboration with Searchlight New Mexico.

In March, New Mexico lawmakers took their biggest step yet in an attempt to block plans for a nuclear waste storage facility in the scrublands near Carlsbad.

The legislature passed Senate Bill 53 on a largely partisan vote, seeking to block Holtec International’s eight-year effort to build a facility in southeastern New Mexico that would hold 8,680 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants across the country.

The state has been challenging Holtec’s plans for years, both in court and before the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But New Mexico’s best chance at stopping the project may come in the form of the new law, which became effective when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed it on March 17.

Legal and nuclear experts anticipate that the law will face legal challenges, however. And in the end, federal courts will likely determine if New Mexico has the authority to keep Holtec from building its Consolidated Interim Storage Facility on a 1,040-acre site between Carlsbad and Hobbs.

Foes of the project include not only the governor and state legislators, but also the state’s congressional delegation, the All Pueblo Council of Governors, numerous local governments and a wide array of activists and citizens.

Transporting radioactive waste through New Mexico and storing it near one of the world’s most productive oil fields would jeopardize the economy, the environment, and health and safety, opponents say.

“People are deserving of protection for our way of life and our health and well-being,” said Rose Gardner, a Eunice resident and member of the Alliance for Environmental Strategies, who advocated for SB 53 this spring.

Lujan Grisham, for her part, sent a letter to the NRC shortly after she signed the bill, asking the agency to “immediately suspend any further consideration of the Holtec license application.”

The new law, the governor noted, establishes two conditions that must be met before the state can issue permits, contracts or licenses for a high-level nuclear waste storage facility. First, New Mexico must consent to the facility; and second, the federal government must have a permanent nuclear waste repository in place, so that an alternative storage site exists. Neither of those conditions have been met.

If no permanent nuclear repository exists, the Holtec site wouldn’t be “interim storage,” as it’s now billed — instead, it would be forever storage, opponents argue. New Mexico would become the de facto dumping ground for all of the nation’s high-risk nuclear detritus, they say.

Legal questions ahead

In the event of a court challenge, legal experts say New Mexico will need to prove that the new law is not focused on safety concerns. Nuclear safety, including the storage and transport of radioactive waste, falls under the federal government’s purview, as established by the Atomic Energy Act (AEA).

Under the AEA, the federal government reserves the right to regulate safety issues for nuclear power plants and waste. The federal law preempts — or takes precedence over — state statutes, which can be challenged in court if they conflict with federal authority.

“Costly and time-consuming litigation could occur if this bill were challenged,” as the fiscal impact report for the new law puts it.

The measure’s co-sponsor, Rep. Matthew McQueen (D-Galisteo), directly addressed the preemption issue during committee hearings, assuring fellow lawmakers that the bill sidestepped any problems. “Federal law preempts the state’s ability to regulate the safety or handling of nuclear waste,” he told the House Judiciary Committee in March. “So we’re not doing that.”
About half a dozen lawyers and experts, however, said it was unclear whether New Mexico’s law could be considered a preemption.
Nuclear waste storage laws like New Mexico’s are almost always challenged in court, said Geoffrey Fettus, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. However, he said, “New Mexico took deep pains to sail the ship into the dock without hitting the sides of federal preemption.”

Legal challenges bring mixed results

Nearly two decades ago, Utah enacted statutes to block an interim nuclear waste storage facility, basing them on safety concerns. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit struck down Utah’s laws, finding that they were preempted. (The facility was nevertheless never built due to political opposition.)

A more recent case regarding Virginia’s battle to ban uranium mining went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. This time, the state prevailed: The high court upheld Virginia’s ban in 2019.

Legislation, meanwhile, has not always paid off. In September 2021, Texas enacted House Bill 7 to block a nuclear waste storage facility much like the Holtec project, located about a mile from the New Mexico border. Days later, the NRC approved a license for it. (The facility is not yet built; the battle against it is ongoing.)

The NRC has not yet issued a decision about whether it will approve a license for Holtec’s venture in New Mexico. The agency recently informed Holtec that its decision would be delayed until about the end of May.

Train crashes and temblors

In the backdrop, safety issues remain a major concern. Among many potential dangers, critics of the Holtec project note that trains transporting radioactive waste could derail or crash, a possibility made more real by the recent train derailment disaster in Ohio.

An accident involving the Holtec project would not only threaten residents and the environment. It could also devastate the economy, according to the legislative fiscal impact report. “A significant accident or attack on a radioactive waste storage facility could significantly disrupt oil and gas activity in one of the most productive oil and gas producing regions in the world,” it stated.

In court documents, New Mexico has argued that the NRC did not consider the costs associated with upgrades to the state’s rail system to accommodate the transportation of large volumes of spent nuclear fuel.

The Permian Basin is also prone to earthquakes, which have been linked to injection wells associated with fracking. New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney has expressed concern that earthquakes could damage Holtec’s storage canisters, jeopardizing the public and the groundwater.

Another concern is that Holtec could go out of business, leaving the canisters to languish and deteriorate, a prospect that many opponents mentioned during legislative committee meetings.
New Mexico has a history of failed cleanups for radioactive waste, including hundreds of uranium mines on the Navajo Nation that have yet to be remediated.

Defenders cite benefits

Patrick O’Brien, a Holtec spokesman, said the company is deeply disappointed in New Mexico’s new law. The proposed storage facility, he said in an emailed statement, is “safe, secure and does not impact the environment negatively.”

The Holtec facility would create jobs and is desperately needed, proponents argue. The nation’s lack of a nuclear waste repository has forced power plants to store their spent fuel on site, at enormous cost to taxpayers. The expense — covered by the federal government — has already reached $9 billion.

The Holtec facility has local backing, O’Brien added. Supporters include business leaders and public officials in Eddy and Lea counties, whose Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance has been promoting the project for years.The facility “is a tremendous economic opportunity for Southeastern New Mexico,” O’Brien wrote. The company, he said, will continue working “to help provide an interim solution to the spent fuel management impasse in the United States.”

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Fair Use Notice
This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. SEED Coalition is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability, human rights, economic democracy and social justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a “fair use” of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond “fair use”, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.