The (False?) Promise of Small Modular Reactors

Book Review
By Reese Palley

The Babcock and Wilcox MPower  SMR

The nuclear energy debate is framed in what became its fossilized form in the 1970s and 1980s as the global disarmament movement and the anti-nuclear movement had some successes. Even this year, as the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns dominate the discussion, most of the debate is about the wisdom of building more of the familiar, large-scale gigawatt nuclear power plants that have been with us since the 1960s. The public has the image of the old technologies from forty years ago that failed in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Nuclear proponents argue that new designs are going to be “passive safe,” often smaller, and with a less poisonous waste product. Anti-nuclear groups have to focus on how to wind down the old generation of power plants, and also pay attention to this new generation because from now on this is what the debate will be about.
In 2011, American author Reese Palley wrote The Answer: Why Only Inherently Safe Mini-Nuclear Power Plants Can Save Our World, in which he presents a powerful argument that all alternatives except these new SMRs (Small Modular Reactors, or mini nukes) offer false hope as solutions to the energy crisis. The argument for these SMRs has some severe weaknesses, but Palley must be credited with having written some excellent prose that provides a brutally frank description of how bad our energy predicament is.
Reese served in WWII, attended the London School of Economics, and had a successful career in the art business. He then spent two decades sailing the world, pausing in China and the Soviet Union along the way to establish businesses there. And he’s an author of several books who has now turned his attention to the planet’s greatest problem.
Palley agrees with anti-nuclear activists on the point that large gigawatt power plants must be a thing of the past. They were designed to produce plutonium for the build-up of nuclear weapons, while different options for reactor design were pushed aside. They are too expensive and time-consuming to build, and have too many real and perceived dangers for the public and private investors to support.
Anti-nuclear activists, however, hesitate to get on board with his enthusiasm for the new generation of SMRs that are now in the design stage. Palley promotes these reactors as “walk away safe” because they are to be buried in the ground and run for a few decades without human intervention. They are modular and scalable, leaving behind no weapons grade material because they are based on the safer reactor concepts that were passed up in the early days of the Cold War. Some of the designs are said to be capable of using up existing spent fuel, which is sufficient enough, supposedly, to provide the earth’s energy needs for centuries.
Palley’s assessment of alternatives is hard to dispute. He notes that there is no oil, coal or gas shortage. There are enough of these sources to last a few more centuries, but the problem is that ecosystems will collapse from global warming before these resources are gone. We have to stop using them soon, and it is not just a matter of cutting back. We have to get carbon dioxide emissions close to zero to avoid the worst outcome.
Renewable energy sources have severe shortcomings as well. Water behind hydroelectric dams contains rotting vegetation which spews out the greenhouse gas methane. There isn’t enough space to put wind farms in the places where they are needed. The solar energy striking the earth is finite. It has to be used to grow plants, which sequester carbon and feed people, so there is a limit on how much solar energy can be used to produce electricity or biofuels. Geothermal sites contain greenhouse gases and toxins, and there are difficulties in finding sites close to populations that need energy. Finally, sequestering greenhouse gases in underground storage is utterly unrealistic. In short, there is no solution except SMRs, apparently. 
The most fascinating argument that Palley presents is in his discussion of the black swan, civilization-ending massive solar flare which would knock out power grids all over the world. He uses this as an argument for breaking up large, interconnected grids into local isolated grids powered by SMRs. This could save the world from a complete, prolonged blackout. Such a flare actually occurred in 1859 and it caused fires, and destruction of the small telegraph grid that was in place at the time. No one knows for sure how a recurrence would effect electricity grids now. After sufficiently scaring the life out of his readers, he may not have wanted to associate this disaster with its effect on nuclear power plants. He conveniently omits mention of this long blackout leading to hundreds of nuclear power plants running out of fuel for backup cooling systems, after which they would go into meltdowns. Fukushima X 400 (or 400 Chernobyls, as this report explains it).
Palley’s argument becomes suspect when the reader notices that the sharp, critical eye he has for every other energy alternative is not applied to SMRs, or even to conventional nuclear power plants. A few moments of research on the Internet turns up numerous articles that raise safety concerns about these new nuclear power plants, and Palley gives very short shrift to the known extent of radiological contamination from various accidents. The health consequences of Chernobyl are given less than a page, and what is written is just a pat repetition of the big lie that I’ve covered in previous posts. These omissions begin to seem quite disingenuous by the end of the book.
The physicist Michio Kaku voiced criticisms of SMRs in a short interview on CNN. He conceded that these power plants might be used in remote communities, but he felt it was extremely unrealistic to think that they could provide a city like Chicago, let alone the whole world, with all its requirements. As one power plant could supply energy to 20,000 homes, it is inconceivable that Chicago would have dozens of these plants throughout the city. He notes too that even though the spent fuel would not have a potential to be turned into nuclear bombs, it would still be high level nuclear waste that posed a risk of mishandling or sabotage in the form of a dirty bomb.
A more thorough critique was written by Arjun Makhijani and Michele Boyd in a report for The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and Physicians for Social Responsibility. They point out that the low cost estimates of SMRs may be underestimated, as every proposal for new technology tends to be. Mass production of numerous SMRs could be more expensive than the building and maintenance of fewer large plants. There will be thousands of sites that need to be secured, monitored, staffed, and serviced when recalls are required. The existence of thousands of sites also complicates retrieval of waste and decommissioning.
The makers of SMRs also propose that these reactors could be used in developing countries, but many such places are unstable and they lack an educated workforce that can handle this advanced technology.
Makhijani and Boyd also cover the details of different proposed types of SMRs. The ones based on sodium cooling are particularly worrisome considering the history of accidents and delays with this technology (for background, refer to the Fermi I reactor accident near Detroit, and the expensive, unproductive monster that is the Monju reactor in Japan). They point out that one of the many problems of the pebble bed reactor design (which a German company gave up on a long time ago) is that the uranium it uses is more enriched than what is used now in light water reactors. How is this less of a proliferation risk? Finally, the thorium reactors don’t produce the same bomb making material as light water reactors, but they still produce fissile Uranium 233 isotopes.
Worst of all, the SMRs may be a false promise that deflects attention away from the need to reduce population and consumption, and improve efficiency. Palley himself admitted that endless growth and thirst for more energy is the root of the problem, but he doesn’t acknowledge that the proliferation of thousands of SMRs would only feed this endless desire for more energy and lead to more population growth.
The flaw in the logic may be right in the title of Palley’s book: The Answer. There seems to be a faulty assumption that there has to be an answer. The thinking goes that if it is not a, b, c, d or e, then it must be f. People involved in the energy debate often choose their favorite answer, ignore its flaws and defend it at all costs. Meanwhile, they demolish the arguments for all other alternatives. This process ignores the possibility that there may be no answer. The universe doesn’t care if we go the same way as the dinosaurs. If there is an answer, it remains elusive.


Arjun Makhijani and Michele Boyd. Small Modular Reactors: No solution to the cost, safety and waste problems of nuclear power. A fact sheet produced by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and Physicians for Social Responsibility, September 2010.
Is Thorium a Magic Bullet for our Energy Problems? NPR. May 2012.
John G. Fuller. We Almost Lost Detroit. 1984.
Hiroko Tabuchi. Japan Strains to Fix a Reactor Damaged Before Quake. The New York Times. June 17, 2011.

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