Small Modular Reactors Big On Nuclear Waste?

Small Modular Reactor (SMR) nuclear waste

Leader of the Opposition Peter Dutton says he’s not afraid to have a debate about nuclear energy. That’s great, but do we *really* need to have another one?

Mr. Dutton was commenting on his choice of Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Ted O’Brien MP. 

Back in 2019, Mr. O’Brien said:

“Australia should say a definite ‘No’ to old nuclear technologies but a conditional ‘Yes’ to new and emerging technologies such as small modular reactors.

That was in relation to a problematic report on nuclear power released by the House Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy – which Mr. O’Brien was chairing.

The report suggested Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) would make nuclear power economically viable. Small Modular Reactors are basically miniature nuclear power plants that can be pre-fabricated off-site. Operational terrestrial-based electricity generation using SMR technology was vapourware at the time of the report – and more than 2 years on it still is.

The Legacy Of Small Modular Reactors

There has been a lot of hype around the potential for SMR tech, but a very recent study out of Stanford University published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests most small modular reactor designs are inferior to conventional nuclear reactors in several very important aspects.

Among the concerns is SMRs will experience more neutron leakage than conventional reactors, which will affect the amount and composition of their waste streams.

“We found that small modular reactors will generate at least nine times more neutron-activated steel than conventional power plants,” said study co-author Rodney Ewing, the Frank Stanton Professor in Nuclear Security at Stanford. “These radioactive materials have to be carefully managed prior to disposal, which will be expensive.”

The research team also estimated radiotoxicity of plutonium in spent fuels discharged from the designs studied would be at least 50 percent higher than that from conventional plants’ spent fuel per unit of energy extracted – after 10,000 years. Another issue is some designs requiring “chemically exotic” fuels and coolants that can result in waste that will be difficult to safely dispose of.

Co-author Allison Macfarlane noted her research team shouldn’t have been the ones to do this study – that responsibility was on the shoulders of SMR vendors chasing (and getting) US government support for these facilities.

Flogging The Dead Nuclear Horse

But back to yet another potential round of debating the virtues of allowing nuclear power in Australia. Putting aside the myriad other issues,  Australian power stations will never go down this path as nuclear energy is too expensive.

This will remain the case for the foreseeable future whether it’s SMR technology or big-ass conventional nuclear power plants. As SQ’s Ronald has previously pointed out, if by some miracle nuclear power – with all costs considered – becomes as cheap as chips, that’s the time to start building it.

“Building nuclear before it’s cheaper than other low emission options would be what economists call freaking stupid.”

And the time when nuclear power *may* become cheaper is so far down the track, any further discussion now is incredibly premature. Pursuing more of these already-held debates is a distracting and time-burgling exercise taking focus away from full-steam ahead (so to speak) on clean power solutions currently available that *already* and *will continue to* push down the cost of electricity – renewables backed by storage.

If all the effort that has been put into protecting fossil fuels, stymieing renewables and indulging in vapourware teasers over the last decade had been directed that way, we’d be a heck of a lot closer to the clean, reliable, safe and cheap energy future we crave than we are now. And many Australian households and businesses may not be facing the world of hurt that looks to be heading their way in the form of jacked up power bills.

About Michael Bloch

Michael caught the solar power bug after purchasing components to cobble together a small off-grid PV system in 2008. He's been reporting on Australian and international solar energy news ever since.

Comments

  1. Des Scahill says

    Dutton’s comment seems IMO, typical LNP obfuscation, intended to delay yet again any sensible transition to renewables by adopting a guise of reasonableness.

    It seems that nothing has as yet changed within the Liberal Party.

    • George Kaplan says

      Isn’t Dutton just doing his job? He is, or should be, asking questions, making suggestions, pointing out hypocrisy, and generally holding Labor’s feet to the fire so as to ensure the best policy for Australia.

      Albanese seems to be operating on a policy of disclaiming responsibility or outright buck passing. Some articles even refer to the Bob Hawke defence it’s such an archaic technique! Other articles refer to the ‘Putin Price Surge’ as if Russia were somehow affecting Australian power prices.

      It is interesting to see that investment in renewables has apparently decreased in recent years, that Labor insists Australia needs 9x “… the amount of utility scale renewables to make the system more stable”. Can we afford such given soaring interest rates, power prices, cost of living etc?

      And before anyone claims we must else the planet will burn, if we don’t have the money we can’t afford it unless we’re prepared to steal.

      • Geoff Miell says

        George Kaplan,
        And before anyone claims we must else the planet will burn, if we don’t have the money we can’t afford it unless we’re prepared to steal.

        Where’s affordable, reliable energy coming from in future? What’s your plan, George?

        Meanwhile, per WattClarity, as at Jun 2, coal-fired generators that were unavailable to supply energy to the NEM were for:
        * Queensland: 27%;
        * NSW: 32%; and
        * Victoria: 23%.
        https://wattclarity.com.au/articles/2022/06/02june-morning-price-volatility/

        Where’s this reliable, cheap coal power you refer to, George? ?

        • George Kaplan says

          Affordable reliable energy? Historically, and outside the climate change driven West, that was coal.

          A quick Duck has the 10 largest power plants under construction (as of 2019) being 4 coal, 4 hydro, and 2 nuclear plants with output ranging from 4,000 MW to 16GW – these are mostly in China. Note hydro comprised 3 of the largest, the largest coal plant was a ‘mere’ 6,000′ MW.

          A Statista page has 2025 projected additions to power capacity by energy type as 62 GW of fossil fuels, 242 GW of clean energy, but as noted above the biggest projects are hydro – opposed by environmentalists in Australia, not that there’s a lot of great spots for such, and it’s unclear whether nuclear power is considered fossil or clean. (Elsewhere nuclear is clumped with hydro, solar, and wind).

          World Energy Data for 2022 has fossil fuels as comprising 61.3% of current generation, nuclear + hydro + wind + solar as 35.2%. I expect you’ll object to the clumping so to further break those figures down, the largest specific types are coal 35.1%, gas 23.4%, hydro 16%, nuclear 10.1%, wind 5.9%, solar 3.2%, and oil 2.8%. Since 1985 coal has comprised about 38% – currently on a slight slump after a rise, oil has plummeted to about a quarter, gas has jumped about a third, nuclear has dropped about a third, hydro has fallen about a quarter, and of course wind + solar has exploded from nothing as far back as about 2000 to comprise almost 10% of global generation. Curiously enough 1995 was apparently when nuclear + hydro + wind + solar peaked, with fossil fuels increasing their share 1996-2012.

          Not quite the level of specificity I was after but sadly I’m just not getting any hits for future generation by type sort of data. So not a direct answer to your question, but indicative that new coal plants should be considered for Australia if overseas developments are any indication, especially since there won’t be any shipping costs to add to the price of power. Hydro too should also be considered, but only if anyone can find\suggest a decent spot. The debate over nuclear has already been mentioned here, and of course SQ espouses solar. Whatever will Labor do?

          • Ronald Brakels says

            The wholesale price of electricity from the Hinkley C nuclear power station under construction in the UK will cost a minimum of around 20 cents per kilowatt-hour. That would be about a 70% increase to electricity bills here. While batteries are pricey at the moment, it would be cheaper to run a home off rooftop solar and a home battery than from nuclear at Hinkley C prices.

          • Geoff Miell says

            George Kaplan,
            Historically, and outside the climate change driven West, that was coal.

            Forget ancient history. How does the cost of new coal plants compare with other technologies NOW?

            CSIRO/AEMO’s GenCost report finds renewables holding steady as the cheapest new-build power: https://twitter.com/barobertson111/status/1508519935655682050

            And how long does it take to build new plants?
            See: https://twitter.com/ProfRayWills/status/983720784672604161/photo/1

            Building a gas-fired power station is the quickest way to build large scale fossil fuel and building nuclear is by far the slowest method of adding utility scale generation to the grid.

            An additional constraint on fossil fuel and nuclear power generator units is that they require a supply chain of fuel provision to allow them to fire up while renewables simply harvest free energy from the location they are built in, so in fact if the time to get approvals to source fuel resources is factored into build time (because you don’t build a power station unless you have confirmed contracts of supply before you can get financial close on building your power station) then the build time of conventional energy can be stretched out.

  2. Geoff Miell says

    Michael,
    Pursuing more of these already-held debates is a distracting and time-burgling exercise taking focus away from full-steam ahead (so to speak) on clean power solutions currently available that *already* and *will continue to* push down the cost of electricity – renewables backed by storage.

    Economist John Quiggin concluded in his blog post Coal and the nuclear lobby (updated) on 13 Aug 2018 (bold text my emphasis):

    In summary, even on magical assumptions it would be impossible to get nuclear power going in Australia before 2040, by which time we would already have had to close most of the coal-fired generation fleet. It follows that the only effect of nuclear advocacy is to prolong the life of coal-fired power to the limits of technological feasibility.

    In practice, support for nuclear power in Australia is support for coal. Tony Abbott understands this. It’s a pity that Ben Heard and others don’t

    https://johnquiggin.com/2018/08/13/coal-and-the-nuclear-lobby/

    IMO, Peter Dutton is following Tony Abbott’s playbook.

  3. Kenneth Beer says

    Electricity for my house is delivered from the south west WA power grid and natural gas from the 15% reserved for domestic use storage, supplied by LNG exporters as a condition of their WA Government project approval. I am aware of recent predicted price increases and experienced supply shortages of electricity in SA, Victoria, NSW and Queensland. I have read that PM Anthony Albanese has asked coal fired electricity generators in Eastern Australia to generate more electricity and reduce supply shortages. I have read of the concerns of many business owners in Eastern Australia whether they can keep operating. Solar and wind generated electricity is not available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week due to their intermittent fuel supply and I don’t know whether large, safe from fires, economic energy storage batteries suitable for connecting to the electricity grid in SA, Victoria, NSW and Queensland are available? I think the “instant energy experts” here should downsize their arrogance and egos by not attempting to shut down analysis of nuclear generated electricity in Australia. Why? Because nuclear generated electricity is supplying most developed economies in the world but not here in Australia. Because here in Australia we know something about nuclear generated electricity that the rest of the developed world doesn’t know. Because here in Australia we are picking winners and losers of technology to generate electricity using emotion, such as too dangerous or too expensive or too long to build, rather than analysis. If we in Australia are certain that nuclear generated electricity is the wrong choice for the rest of the developed world then why don’t we stop digging up uranium and exporting it? Let’s not shut down analysis of nuclear generated electricity in Australia. Instead let’s get the blinkers off, open our minds and agree that appropriately qualified experts (not us or our elected MP’s) are the best minds to analyse electricity generation technologies for Australia. Until we in Australia are reasonably certain that we have an electricity generation supply plan that will work, early closure of coal fired electricity generators in Eastern Australia may be premature. Given the recent supply shortages of electricity in SA, Victoria, NSW and Queensland I have early doubts that we in Australia have an electricity generation supply plan that will work.

    • Geoff Miell says

      Kenneth Beer,
      Let’s not shut down analysis of nuclear generated electricity in Australia. Instead let’s get the blinkers off, open our minds and agree that appropriately qualified experts (not us or our elected MP’s) are the best minds to analyse electricity generation technologies for Australia.

      Kenneth, have you considered that perhaps you are the one with the “blinkers”, and are not adequately informed on this matter?
      See Nick O’Malley’s op-ed on Jun 6 at: https://www.smh.com.au/environment/climate-change/old-and-costly-nuclear-energy-has-reliable-friends-20220605-p5ar6v.html

      How many more inquiries/analyses into the suitability of nuclear power for Australia do you want, Kenneth?

      Periodically, as with the changing of the seasons, various individuals appear in the media singing the virtues of nuclear energy onshore – claiming it is the only option for clean and reliable electricity in Australia. In fact, nuclear power in Australia makes no sense and wasting time and energy debating it is a distraction from genuine climate action. …

      Many parliamentary inquiries at a federal and state level – see this Victorian Inquiry, this Federal Inquiry, and this South Australian Inquiry for instance – have been held into nuclear, and all have concluded that nuclear power makes no sense in Australia.

      https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/nuclear-power-stations-are-not-appropriate-for-australia-and-probably-never-will-be/

      Kenneth, if you are looking for “appropriately qualified experts” to assess the status and trends of the international nuclear industry, then the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2021 is arguably the most comprehensive annual analysis, by thirteen interdisciplinary experts from Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Lebanon/U.S., Ukraine/U.S. and the U.K., from top think tanks like Chatham House in London and prestigious academic institutions like Harvard in Cambridge, Meiji in Tokyo, Nagasaki University, University of British Columbia, and Technical University in Berlin.
      https://www.worldnuclearreport.org/World-Nuclear-Industry-Status-Report-2021-773.html

Speak Your Mind

Please keep the SolarQuotes blog constructive and useful with these 5 rules:

1. Real names are preferred - you should be happy to put your name to your comments.
2. Put down your weapons.
3. Assume positive intention.
4. If you are in the solar industry - try to get to the truth, not the sale.
5. Please stay on topic.

Please solve: 23 + 6 

Get The SolarQuotes Weekly Newsletter