Weekly WastebasketSmall Nuclear Reactors Are the White Elephant No One NeedsIt’s time to “re-gift” the industry’s costly toy back to the private sector

In this season of office holiday parties and gift exchanges, here’s a friendly reminder to be wary of that last gift on the table, the one bulging and poking out of its wrapping, the infamous white elephant. You know, the nonfunctional, usually ridiculous item that no one wants. A plastic White House that doubles as a candy box and plays Hail to the Chief still lingers around the TCS office, for example.

Over the years, we’ve seen quite a few white elephants on Capitol Hill, and we’ve gotten pretty good at calling them out. The culprit this week is a new brand of mini nuclear reactors that policymakers are trying to pawn off on taxpayers. These pint-sized counterparts of traditional nuclear plants have been pitched to both Congress and the White House as a panacea to the beleaguered nuclear industry and a quick fix to our climate challenges. But like large nuclear plants, the new variety – known as small modular reactors (“SMRs”) – take years to design and construct, leave behind toxic waste, can’t compete on cost, and by nature produce less energy. An overdesigned gadget with all the same quirks and downsides plus less utility? That’s a white elephant!

Given the choice, we’re happy to let private industry and our coworker that chews with their mouth open go for the overpriced contraption, especially when alternatives like wind and solar power, efficiency gains, and battery storage are now cheaper than nuclear generation. However, policymakers are insisting on the fantasy of rolling mini reactors off the assembly line to compete in energy markets and leaving out carrots that will cost taxpayers billions. Never mind that the slew of current subsidies has failed to foster a cost-effective nuclear reactor industry, and the timeline for deploying SMRs is far too distant to make a timely climate impact.

If SMRs really were a promising source of power for elaborate Christmas lights displays and remote communities as advocates claim, they’d be in higher demand than the coupon for free coffee runs for a month from that guy in accounting. Potential manufacturers developed several designs a decade ago, but these proved radioactive to private investors. Hence, many heavyweights in the nuclear industry cut back their SMR programs. Enter Uncle Sucker, aka the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which funded a few SMR test projects and quickly lost more than $100 million. The early efforts to shower SMRs with subsidies led us to award the DOE program the infamous Golden Fleece Award for wasting taxpayer dollars back in 2013.

Despite the red flags, DOE has plowed ahead and handed hundreds of millions of dollars to NuScale Power to get one design certified. DOE has spent more than $1.2 billion on SMRs to date, and now wants to give NuScale and other companies at least $5.5 billion more to develop and demonstrate SMR designs over the next decade.

One Utah utility is planning to build the first U.S. SMR power plant with NuScale’s reactor (and a promise of $1.4 billion in DOE subsidies). But its overly optimistic plans are already melting down. Nuclear plants, especially first-of-a-kind projects, are notorious for cost overruns. A $1 billion budget ends up becoming $8 billion, and no one thinks it’s a miracle. But really, the only nuclear reactors currently under construction in Georgia are $16 billion over budget and six years behind schedule, and counting!

Even if DOE’s gambit to get some modular reactors up and running succeeds, demand for commercial units that can compete with other energy sources is unlikely to materialize. Bringing down SMRs’ cost depends on several assumptions about their production and deployment that have not been proven. At the least, it requires savings that SMR companies purport will come from serial production and operation that improves over time. Making that happen with federal spending means more decades of industry dependence and a money pit for taxpayer dollars.

After 60 years, the nuclear power industry remains heavily dependent on subsidies, faces costly and unresolved waste issues, and leaves a long trail of ongoing environmental liabilities, from uranium mining contaminants to water pollution.

Unfortunately, mini reactors are far from the gift that keeps on giving for U.S. taxpayers. Like the tie with reindeers you got at the office swap, more federal dollars for SMRs should be left behind.

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