Nuclear power provides energy that is largely carbon-free and can play an important role in helping to deal with climate change. But in most industrialized countries, the construction of nuclear plants tends to exceed the budgeted cost significantly and take years longer than schedule.
One hope to change this was to use small modular nuclear reactors, which could be built in a central production facility and then shipped to their installation site. But on Wednesday, the company and utility planning to build the first small nuclear plant in the United States announced they had canceled the project.
Small modular reactors take several steps to reduce costs. Their smaller size makes it easier for passive cooling systems to take over in the event of a loss of power (some designs simply keep their reactors in a pool). It also allows critical components to be built in a central facility and then shipped to different plant sites, allowing much of the manufacturing equipment to be reused for all sites using the reactors.
The United States has approved one design for a small modular nuclear reactor developed by NuScale Power. The government’s Idaho National Laboratory was working to help create NuScale’s first installation Carbon-free energy project. Under the plan, the national laboratory will maintain a few of the first reactors at the site, and a number of nearby facilities will purchase power from the remaining reactors.
But as prices for renewable energy fell sharply, the economics of the project worsened, and backers began to withdraw from the project.
The final straw came on Wednesday, when NuScale and its primary utility partner, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, announced that the carbon-free power project no longer had enough additional utility partners, so it was cancelled. In a statement, the pair agreed that “it seems unlikely that the project will have enough subscription to continue publishing.”
John Hopkins, CEO of NuScale, tried to put a positive spin on the event, saying: “Our work with the Zero Carbon Energy Project over the past 10 years has advanced NuScale’s technology to the stage of commercial deployment; reaching this milestone is a tremendous success and we will work on achieve it.” “Continue building with customers in the future.” But none of these potential customers have developed anything to the point of a zero-carbon energy project, so it is now uncertain whether the company will be able to build any commercial reactors before the contract expires.
The same is now true of nuclear energy in general in the United States. No large reactors were planned, and the last few projects of this type were either canceled or horribly over budget. Although some other reactor designs are now being considered for separate projects, none have been able to clear the hurdle of approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
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