Among Glenn Youngkin’s many cockamamie ideas, his “thoughts” (in air quotes) on energy are particularly moronic. Now, perhaps it’s in part because I worked at the U.S. Energy Information Administration for over 17 years, then consulted on clean energy for another decade, why I find Youngkin’s willfull ignorance and idiocy on this topic to be particularly offensive. But yeah…if you know anything about energy, you know that Youngkin is clueless, whether willfully or not, and definitely not someone whose “vision” should be followed by Virginia.
For instance, take Youngkin’s weird fixation, even obsession, with “small modular” nuclear reactors (SMRs), which Youngkin embarrassingly claims are “pretty awesome” (eye roll) and (wrongly) believes represent some sort of “great opportunity.” Youngkin has further stated that “[i]n 10 years, I want a commercial small modular reactor in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” while proposing to spend millions of Virginians’ tax dollars to kickstart his dream.
So what’s the problem with Youngkin’s vision for SMRs? Actually, the question really is what are the problems – MANY problems, and MAJOR ones at that! This morning, there’s an article by the suberb RenewEconomy (by Allison Macfarlane, “the director of the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia and former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission”), which does an excellent job explaining why SMRs are most definitely not the BFDs Youngkin thinks they are. Here are the key points (bolding added by me for emphais), but definitely read the entire article!
- Excitement about SMRs “speaks to the popular imagination, rather than materializing as actual technological innovation.”
- “Most of these designs are just that: designs. Very few of the proposed SMRs have been demonstrated and none are commercially available, let alone licensed by a nuclear regulator.”
- “One U.S. company, NuScale, is the only SMR design in the US to received ‘design certification’ from the NRC…cost estimates for the reactor have risen from US$55/megawatt electric (MWe) in 2016 to $89/MWe in 2023, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. Many of the non-light water SMR designs will likely be even costlier, based on recent analyses. A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study suggests that SMRs will run significantly higher in cost than large light water reactors, especially in per MW comparable ‘overnight’ costs (how much it would cost to build a new reactor if one could do so overnight) and operations and maintenance costs.”
- “Recent construction experience in the US and Europe does not herald success for SMR new builds. The two French-design evolutionary power reactor (EPR) builds have been far over budget and schedule.”
- “One of the reasons SMRs will cost more has to do with fuel costs. Most non-light water designs require high-assay low enriched uranium fuel (HALEU), in other words, fuel enriched in the isotope uranium-235 between 10-19.99%, just below the level of what is termed ‘highly enriched uranium,’ suitable for nuclear bombs.”
- “…commercial-scale SMRs are likely decades away, if they are at all viable”
- “Smaller reactor sizes can also result in comparatively more waste volume, next to existing large light water reactors. In fact, a recent U.S. National Academy of Science analysis noted that advanced reactors do not solve the problems of nuclear waste and may, in fact, exacerbate the problem.”
- “…given the development timelines for these new reactor designs, they are not likely to have a significant impact on CO2 emissions reductions for decades, and as a result their relevance to the climate argument shrinks.”
- “The ‘tech bro’ libertarian culture that valorizes new technology, loathes regulation, and embraces the marketplace has spawned a new generation of, according to the Washington Post, ‘nuclear bros.'”
By the way, just to compare the costs of SMRs to other energy sources, take a look at Lazard’s 2023 “Levelized Cost of Energy” estimates, which put the costs of various power sources (not counting energy efficiency, which of course is the cheapest form of energy, and what Virginia should REALLY be focusing on!) as follows:
- Utility-scale solar PV: $24/MWh-$96/MWh
- Onshore wind: $24/MWh-$75/MWh
- Gas combined cycle: $39/MWh-$156/MWh
- Gas peaking: $115/MWh-$221/MWh
- Nuclear: $141/MWh-$221/MWh
Notice which is the most expensive form of new electric power generation? That’s right, nuclear power, at a massive $141/MWh-$221/MWh, several times more expensive than utility-scale solar or onshore wind. But those cost estimates are for large nuclear power plants, not SMRs, which have skyrocketed in cost, with a recent estimate of $89/MWh…but that’s “without $4 billion federal tax subsidies that include a $1.4 billion U.S. Department of Energy contribution and a $30/MWh break from the Inflation Reduction Act.” So it’s looking like the actual cost of SMRs has now risen to “substantially higher than $100 per MWh”…something like 4x-5x higher than the lowest estimates for utility-scale solar PV and onshore wind power.
In sum, SMRs are highly speculative, super-expensive, problematic in terms of waste, not at all helpful in terms of the climate crisis, and really just part of “‘tech bro’ libertarian culture that valorizes new technology, loathes regulation, and embraces the marketplace.” Glenn Youngkin to a “t,” in other words…