By M.V. Ramana
Abstract:Nuclear power has been declining in importance over the last quarter century, with its share of global electrical energy generation decreasing from 17.5 percent in 1996 to around 10 percent in 2019. Small modular and advanced nuclear reactors have been proposed as potential ways of dealing with the problems—specifically economic competitiveness, risk of accidents, link to proliferation and production of waste—confronting nuclear power technology. This perspective article examines whether these new designs can indeed solve these problems, with a particular focus on the economic challenges. It briefly discusses the technical challenges confronting advanced reactor designs and the many decades it might take for these to be commercialized, if ever. The article explains why the higher construction and operational costs per unit of electricity generation capacity will make electricity from small modular reactors more expensive than electricity from large nuclear power plants, which are themselves not competitive in today’s electricity markets. Next, it examines the potential savings from learning and modular construction, and explains why the historical record suggests that these savings will be inadequate to compensate for the economic challenges resulting from the lower generation capacity. It then critically examines arguments offered by advocates of these technologies about job creation and other potential uses of energy generated from these plants to justify subsidizing and constructing these kinds of nuclear plants. It concludes with an assessment of the markets for these technologies, suggesting that these are inadequate to justify constructing the necessary manufacturing facilities.