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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)

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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.

North Texas could be home to nuclear power plant until 2053. Why are residents opposed?

January 19,2023
Haley Samsel, KERA NEWS

Comanche Peak - Image courtesy of NRC
Comanche Peak – Image courtesy of NRC
Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant, pictured in 2007, sits about 40 miles southwest of Fort Worth and adjacent to Glen Rose in Somervell County. The first unit came online in 1990.

There’s no escaping the fact that Terry McIntire’s family farm sits less than four miles from the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant. Every time the Fort Worth resident visits Somervell County to take care of his 96-year-old father, he drives past a warning siren installed near his family cemetery.

“Most people probably don’t even think about it,” McIntire said. “But if there’s an accident, the 10-mile perimeter includes all of Glen Rose and all of our family property. The air would be unsafe to breathe, and probably the land would be uninhabitable forever.”

Comanche Peak’s future in North Texas is also in the air as the plant’s owner, Vistra, petitions the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to keep reactors online through at least 2053. The company’s current licenses for two nuclear units, which have the capacity to power 1.2 million homes under normal electricity conditions, expire in 2030 and 2033, respectively.

The plant has had a massive presence – both physically and economically – in Somervell County, about 50 miles southwest of Fort Worth, since construction began on nuclear reactors in 1974. Vistra says Comanche Peak is the county’s largest taxpayer, accounting for more than $30 million in state and local taxes per year and more than 600 full-time employees.

Nuclear energy is uniquely positioned to provide reliable, carbon-free power to a country searching for cleaner sources of electricity, Jim Burke, president and CEO of Vistra, said in an October announcement. (While nuclear energy does not produce carbon dioxide, construction of the plants and the transportation of uranium and nuclear waste generates emissions, researchers have found).

“Renewing the licenses of this plant is critical for grid reliability and our environment and is a benefit to the economy, the local community, and our company,” Burke said. “Our team stands ready to continue a proud tradition of safety, dependability, and operational excellence at Comanche Peak, and we are excited to be filing this application for extension.”

That view isn’t shared by all living in the 50-mile radius of the plant, including Tarrant, Hood and Somervell counties. Several residents have expressed concern over safety measures and the plant’s long-term sustainability amid challenges posed by aging infrastructure, drought and low-level earthquakes.

At a Jan. 17 virtual public meeting hosted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, nearly 100 attendees asked questions about how the commission will evaluate the plant’s environmental impact and shared their experiences with Comanche Peak.

Janet Mattern, a southwest Fort Worth resident living within 50 miles of the plant, said the commission has an obligation to educate the public about the risks of extending the life of the reactors. Mattern also serves on the board of the League of Women Voters of Tarrant County.

“Recent reports have stated that when nuclear power plants were initially approved in the ‘80s and ‘90s that the NRC underestimated the risks to public safety at that time,” Mattern said. “We need to make sure that those risks are communicated to the public prior to the renewal of this license.”

Susybelle Gosslee, chair on hazardous waste issues for the League of Women Voters of Texas, asked the NRC to consider how the increasing frequency of drought conditions could lead to more wildfires and limit the availability of water for plant operations. Rita Beving of Dallas urged agency staff to dig into how natural gas drilling in the region could lead to more earthquakes near the plant.

Beving expressed concern that the plant’s safety measures did not account for higher seismic activity, which researchers have connected to deep injection wells and fracking.

“This plant needs further scrutiny and further evaluation,” Beving said. “Even though I know officials have been very pleased with this plant, everyone should be very concerned as this plant ages since some of its components have been around since the 1980s.”

Before the meeting, Vistra spokesperson Meranda Cohn said there is a considerable safety margin between seismic activity the plant is built to handle and any potential seismic activity in the area. All recorded earthquakes in the area have fallen well within that margin, Cohn said.

There is no potential for “toxic runoff” at Comanche Peak, she added. The plant must constantly release water from Squaw Creek Reservoir into the Brazos River, and the water is routinely monitored to ensure it meets state and federal standards, Cohn said.
“Our highest priority is the safety of the public, our people, and our plants,” Cohn wrote. “Comanche Peak is designed to meet the stringent requirements of the NRC, and it meets all codes, standards, and regulations with respect to safe operations and environmental impacts.”

Comanche Peak also received testimonies of support from community leaders, including Glen Rose ISD Superintendent Trig Overbo and Somervell County Judge Danny Chambers. Plant staff have always been good neighbors, Chambers said, and county staff are regularly in contact with Comanche Peak leaders.

Residents with concerns should visit the plant’s visitors’ center and get their questions answered, he added.

“I don’t have anything bad to say because obviously Somervell County wouldn’t be what it is today without the power plant and without what is injected into our community through the workforce, through the financial output,” Chambers said. “There’s no reason for it not to go on because I don’t know how you’d replace what it puts on the grid without it here today.”

Technical issues prevented several people from unmuting their microphones to ask questions or comment over the course of the meeting, which lasted for more than two hours. The commission originally planned two in-person public meetings in Glen Rose on Jan. 10 but moved the session online due to COVID-19 concerns.

Attendees urged commission staff to host an in-person meeting and delay their deadlines to submit comments or apply for a public hearing. Public comments are due by email or mail by Jan. 30, as are requests for public hearings. Instructions to apply for a public hearing are published on The Federal Register.

“I thank you very much for doing this particular meeting online, but even some of these people have not had access to express their comments,” Gosslee, the League of Women Voters of Texas member, said. “There needs to be a public hearing for the people that live close to it and for the people who live many miles away.”

To qualify for a hearing, members of the public must explain why they’re affected by a nuclear facility and the reasons why they believe a proposed action raises environmental or safety questions, according to NRC guidelines. Scott Burnell, a public affairs officer for the NRC who answered questions at the meeting, said people typically have to show proximity to the plant by being located within a 50-mile radius of the reactor.

McIntire, who stands to inherit his family farm in Somervell County, doesn’t expect the efforts of activists to stop the relicensing of the project. But the NRC should exercise more oversight of the plant – and find a permanent storage location for nuclear waste so that it doesn’t stay in Glen Rose, he said.

“The best we can do is hope that it’ll be safer, and there will be better oversight for the next 20 years,” McIntire said.

How to weigh in on Comanche Peak

Public comments on the Comanche Peak environmental impact review can be submitted at under Docket ID: NRC-2022-0183 or by mail to the following address:

Office of Administration
Mailstop: TWFN-7-A60M
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Washington, D.C. 20555-0001

Requests for extensions to the hearing and comment deadlines can be sent to

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.

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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.

New Mexico may seek veto power over spent nuke fuel storage

AP News

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Senate on Monday approved a proposed ban on the local disposal of spent nuclear fuel, unless the state provides its consent first.

The bill from Democratic state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, of Las Cruces, could impact a proposed multibillion-dollar facility in southeastern New Mexico that is expected to temporarily store spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants across the nation. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission may announce a decision as soon as March on whether to grant a license to that project from Holtec International.

The Senate endorsed the bill on a 21-13 vote with Republicans and two Albuquerque-based Democrats in opposition to the proposed ban. The bill moves next to the state House for consideration, amid backing from Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Steinborn said New Mexico residents should be wary of becoming “guinea pigs” for temporary storage projects before the federal government decides on a permanent storage site.

His proposal found support among Democratic legislators, including Sen. Brenda McKenna, of Corrales, who noted New Mexico already grapples with the impacts of Uranium mining.

“What I’m really tired of is hearing over the decades of how our resources have been excavated and then things get dumped here,” she said. “I’m tired of New Mexico being exploited this way.”

Several legislators expressed concern that the bill from Steinborn would challenge longstanding federal authority over nuclear safety matters and lead to new court challenges.

“We’ll find out where the state’s authority ends,” said Democratic state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, of Las Cruces, an attorney who voted in support.

New Mexico and neighboring Texas already have sued in federal court over two proposed multibillion-dollar interim storage facilities for spent fuel— the one in southeastern New Mexico and another in Andrews County, Texas.

New Mexico Republican Sen. Craig Brandt, of Rio Rancho, voted against the bill and expressed confidence in the safety vetting of proposed transportation and storage containers that would be used to bring spent nuclear fuel to New Mexico by rail.

Democratic state Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, of Albuquerque, also voted no, saying it was wrong to overrule significant local community support at close range to a proposed storage site.

Nuclear reactors across the country produce more than 2,000 metric tons of radioactive waste a year, with most of it remaining on-site because there’s nowhere else to put it, according to the Department of Energy. The federal government pays to house the fuel, and the cost is expected to stretch into the tens of billions over the next decade, according to a review by independent government auditors.

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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.