Zeihan on small modular reactors, part 1

Another day has dawned with another video from our favorite geopolitical strategist, Peter Zeihan, but this time talking about small modular reactors and why they won’t “save” us.

Yesterday’s video on thorium has already hit 250,000 views. I’d be lucky if my rebuttal was seen by 1/1000th of that. But oh well, I’ll try it again, and Peter has made it a little easier with today’s video. Yesterday’s video was clearly shot months ago but today’s video looks much more recent based on the snowfall in the background, and it was clearly precipitated around a recent event. NuScale and the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) have been pursuing a project called the Carbon Free Power Project (CFPP) for a number of years now. I have followed this project with great interest, mostly because I grew up in Utah and have associations with many of the communities that are part of the UAMPS consortium.

Now, I’m old enough to remember when the entire concept of a small modular reactor (SMR) had nothing to do with the dominant kind of nuclear reactors we have today, the pressurized water reactors, both boiling and non-boiling, both heavy water and light water. SMRs were considered pretty distinct from PWRs for a simple reason, and that is pressure. Crushing pressure. Unimaginable pressure. Pressure like you’d experience if you were a mile under the ocean. Pressure like you might experience if you going to visit the Titanic. And pressure vessels, especially those pressurized like a typical PWR, tend to get cheaper per unit volume the bigger you make them. Pressure vessels are never cheap, and they’re always difficult to build, but the penalty is diminished the bigger that you make them.

This might have been another excellent point for Peter to explore in his video, by the way.

But of course there comes a point where building a pressure vessel to the kind of quality we expect from a nuclear reactor becomes just utterly cost-prohibitive and impractical. And that’s about where we top out in the construction of nuclear pressure vessels. We try to build them just about as big as we can. Thus it’s not terribly surprising that we have large, gigawatt-scale PWRs today and small ones are confined to niche applications like military submarines or aircraft carriers. And it’s also no real surprise that, before about twenty years ago, there was very little discussion of a PWR as an SMR.

The “classic” idea of an SMR was a liquid-metal-cooled fast-spectrum reactor, like the Toshiba 4S design, or perhaps a lead-cooled design. The coolant was an unpressurized coolant. It ran at standard pressure. So water and gas were off the list as potential coolants. They require high pressures. Liquid metals don’t. Neither do liquid salts. And there I clearly saw an opportunity, around 2006 when this blog got started, for an SMR-MSR to be considered alongside the SMR-LMR designs that were already being promulgated. Metal and salt, unpressurized coolants both, could enable the objectives of SMRs. Water and gas were going to require large pressure vessels. They weren’t going to work out for this class of reactors.

Both metal-cooled and molten-salt reactors actually started small and modular, and then had to be taken off this trend. Oak Ridge was proposing a small modular molten-salt reactor back in the late 1960s. They didn’t call it an SMR, but it completely conformed to that definition. But then they underwent a design change that took them away from small modularity towards very big reactors. By the early 1970s their reference design was a large, gigawatt-class reactor and small modularity was definitely in the rear view mirror. Here’s a recent animation of what their gigawatt MSR would have looked like.

The LFTR design was an attempt to reverse this development, to take SMR-MSR designs back to a time when their natural advantages could be realized in a small, modular configuration. I tell anyone who will listen that LFTRs were SMRs before SMRs were cool.

But NuScale came along and began to popularize the notion of an SMR-PWR. Was it cheaper? It was cheaper overall. But it made a lot less power than a large PWR like the AP1000. And it was never cheaper per unit power than a large PWR like the AP1000 or ABWR (yes, BWRs are pressurized, so it’s not technically wrong to refer to them as PWRs). Government money can sure polish a turd, however, and the government liked the SMR story so much that they decided to throw a whole bunch of money at small modular reactors. But in this relatively recent development, they weren’t SMR-LMRs, they were SMR-PWRs.

NuScale didn’t win the first big tranche of government money. BWXT won it for an SMR-PWR design they called mPower. I wouldn’t blame you if you’ve forgotten what mPower is, or was, but believe me, around 2010 mPower *was* the definition of an SMR in the government’s mind. They got $400M in a development deal. You got to pay for it. You might wonder what you got for that money. You got nothing, because BWXT folded the whole project and in the matter of just a few months, the entire mPower project went “poof!”

So then the government scrambled around again for some other SMR bucket to stuff billions into, and there was NuScale, on the back foot but still alive. So suddenly NuScale became DOE’s SMR darling, receiving all the love and money that BWXT had previously gotten. NuScale signed a deal with Fluor and others. It signed an agreement with UAMPS and appeared to have a real utility customer. The nuclear industry feted it and sang its praises.

I felt a little like the curmudgeon at the party, because I didn’t want to come down on this NuScale/UAMPS deal, but I couldn’t help but notice a few troubling things. For one thing, UAMPS was small and had no background whatsovever in nuclear. It was and is a consortium of Utah municipal utilities. And I knew these places. I’d lived in them and gone to school in them. They aren’t particularly large towns in Utah. The biggest of them were St. George, Bountiful, and Logan, along with a smattering of smaller ones like Hyrum and Kaysville. I was born in Bountiful. I went to college in Logan. I went to high school in Kaysville. And I just had a really hard time believing that these little towns were going to be able to support a brand-new nuclear reactor development. It was even harder to believe that the economics were going to support a pressurized-water reactor.

And honestly, the story just kept getting worse the more I looked into it. I talked to a manufacturer who knew the NuScale design well and told me that it had 57 heavy forgings in it. Fifty-seven heavy forgings! Even one would have been cause to rethink the economics of the design. I was utterly baffled that the NuScale reactor could be this complicated and expensive. And on the municipal front, the support just evaporated, particularly among the bigger UAMPS participants that would have been required to carry the burden of the project. St. George said no to the Carbon-Free Power Project from day one. They were not only out, they were never in. Over time Bountiful and Logan dropped out, and then a bunch of smaller ones including Kaysville. There just wasn’t anywhere close to enough participants in the CFPP to keep this thing going.

Occasionally I would encounter people at the national labs, particularly at the Idaho National Lab, where UAMPS planned to build their NuScale reactor. I’d ask about how things were going and I would point out the severe challenges that I could see in front of the project. Oh Kirk, don’t worry. Everything will be fine. DOE will pay for everything. I would point out that the municipalities within UAMPS would have to pay for the vast majority of the reactor, and the list of participating municipalities was going down, not up. And those that were left were the “little ones”, not the big ones. I began to realize that no one at DOE or at the labs seemed to be paying any attention to this basic development, and that the trends were all in the wrong direction for the success of the CFPP.

(to be continued…)

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