back to article Uncle Sam greenlights first commercial nuclear small modular reactor design

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has finalized rules allowing construction of nuclear small modular reactors (SMRs) – the first time a design has been certified for commercialization. The reactor design certified by the NRC comes from NuScale, which produces modular light-water reactors capable of producing 50MW of …

  1. redpawn

    Hope

    I hope they get the waste thing figured out. 35 times the waste with the waste being more volatile sounds abysmal. As an experiment this sounds good but larger modern reactors may be a better solution to to reduce CO2 output.

    1. Spazturtle Silver badge

      Re: Hope

      It's only a single study that claims that without any actual observational proof, but for some reason the media love to bring it up every time SMRs are mentioned.

      1. blackcat Silver badge

        Re: Hope

        The US needs to start reprocessing again. I think it was Carter that finally outright banned reprocessing in the late 70's and although that has been reversed no-one wants to commit the $$$ to restart. And the other elephant in the room is that we have yet to move away from reactors that were primarily designed to produce bomb plutonium. (although you have to cycle the fuel through a lot faster to get anything worthwhile)

        Unfortunately the 'green' movement (and I use the term VERY loosely as they are far from) has ensured that the term 'breeder reactor' is forever associated with bombs rather than its true nature which is making its own fuel.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Hope

          it's thank to the "green" zealots that the decision to go for gas instead of nuclear was made in the 710's - 80's. that's working out very well isn't it, says me as I look at my newly delivered gas bill.

          1. blackcat Silver badge
            Mushroom

            Re: Hope

            Indeed. There is some evidence that the green movement has been and is still being backed by dark money coming from those with interests in gas.

            Also very telling how when pressed on the matter an awful lot of the very vocal greens admit that they have no solutions and are just demanding that 'something be done'.

            I should have saved the pic from twitter as it showed a German green protest that had flags for no wind turbines, no nuclear and no fossil fuels. Hard to do anything when they oppose pretty much EVERYTHING!!!

            1. SsiethAnabuki

              Re: Hope

              >There is some evidence that the green movement has been and is still being backed by dark money coming from those with interests in gas.

              Is there? I've not seen any or any credible reference to any. If you have some, feel free to reference it rather than make vague assertions.

              >Also very telling how when pressed on the matter an awful lot of the very vocal greens admit that they have no solutions and are just demanding that 'something be done'.

              Indicating that there is a problem that needs solving doesn't obligate you to be the one to provide a solution. Let's try a simple analogy: If someone has a dog that regularly gets loose from their land and attacks local kids, it's not the job of the local kids to work out what the solution to keeping it locked up safely.

              >I should have saved the pic from twitter as it showed a German green protest that had flags for no wind turbines, no nuclear and no fossil fuels. Hard to do anything when they oppose pretty much EVERYTHING!!!

              Again - a link to the evidence you're citing would give it more credibility. But let us presume that one person at one march did hold a sign objecting to one form of renewable energy. That doesn't a) suggest that green campaigners generally oppose that form of renewable energy or that b) that campaigner objects to other forms of renewable energy. That's a powerful reach to set up the straw man of green campaigners being opposed to everything.

              1. blackcat Silver badge

                Re: Hope

                https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jun/19/russia-secretly-working-with-environmentalists-to-oppose-fracking

                https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p020wmm0

                You can't call the guardian far right propaganda :)

                https://twitter.com/ziontree/status/1615331833545216002

                No windfarms, no digging for coal and no nuclear.

                As the green groups claim that they are better and smarter than the 'climate deniers' I would expect them to have some better ideas than gluing themselves to the road. All XR and their spinoffs have done is royally piss everyone off and made themselves look like a bunch of upper middle class unhinged loonies while they prevent people who are only just getting by from going to work.

    2. Cuddles

      Re: Hope

      The waste being more volatile means it has a lower boiling point. Which I'm pretty sure is not what the author actually intended to say. What they actually meant is that the waste is more highly radioactive. Which does potentially make it more difficult to handle in the short term, but also means the short term is all you need to worry about because more radioactive means faster decay and therefore less need for long term storage.

      As for producing 35 times more waste, there's a reason they're using a relative number instead of absolute. If you piled up all the nuclear waste ever produced, it would be smaller than the spoil heap from a single coal mine. Yes, radioactive waste can be hazardous and needs to be disposed of properly. But the scale of the problem is many orders of magnitude smaller than the waste from coal and oil. If we just didn't care about it at all and happily dumped it wherever convenient, we'd still be much, much better off replacing all fossil fuels with nuclear power. The problem is that people have either just got used to other types of waste, or simply don't care at all, while every time the word "nuclear" comes up there's a feeding frenzy to see who can panic the most about how dangerous it is. Ideally we'll deal with nuclear waste a lot better than we do with various other types of waste. But even if we don't do the best job possible, a relatively tiny area of contaminated land would still be a huge improvement on coastlines wiped out by oil spills, large swathes of country with contaminated groundwater, and tailings dams and spoil heaps straight up falling over and crushing entire towns. And of course it's always worth pointing out that coal power plants dump far more radioactivity into the surrounding environment than a nuclear plant ever will. It's just less scary when everyone collectively decides not to think about it.

      1. Snake Silver badge

        Re: Hope

        "If you piled up all the nuclear waste ever produced, it would be smaller than the spoil heap from a single coal mine."

        I am going to chime in, probably to the flurry of downvotes, because that statement is probably not true.

        Everyone always wants to think about, only, the waste from the reactors themselves. But the mining and especially the processing of uranium and plutonium creates low level nuclear waste, and on a very large scale. For instance, https://www.epa.gov/radtown/radioactive-waste-uranium-mining-and-milling. Enrichment of uranium creates a material that is 3.5-5% U-235 for light water reactors, but the rest of the mined and processed uranium is considered low-level radioactive waste.

        Add *all* the wastes together - mining, milling, enrichment tailings, and reactor remnants - and you get quite a decent amount of volume.

        According to https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/new-iaea-report-presents-global-overview-of-radioactive-waste-and-spent-fuel-management , we've created 590,000 tonnes of spent fuel since humans began nuclear energy generation. That does not include the balance of the waste sources I've just mentioned - that's just the spent fuel. In Hanford, Washington state, 200 million liters of low-level liquid nuclear waste has been sitting for decades in caverns, awaiting...well, a final solution to that problem, https://cen.acs.org/environment/pollution/nuclear-waste-pilesscientists-seek-best/98/i12?PageSpeed=noscript.

        And the entire Hanford site is so contaminated from decades of nuclear processing that it considered the the worst Superfund - U.S. federal toxic cleanup sites - in the entire country, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanford_Site. This site alone will create several hundred thousand tons of low-level nuclear waste,

        "Decades of manufacturing left behind 53 million US gallons (200 ML) of high-level radioactive waste[229] stored within 177 storage tanks, an additional 25 million cubic feet (710,000 m3) of solid radioactive waste, and areas of heavy technetium-99 and uranium-contaminated groundwater beneath three tank farms on the site as well as the potential for future groundwater contamination beneath currently contaminated soils."

        once they scrape off the entire soil surface to bury it.

        ----------------------------------

        So as I've mentioned previously, to many downvotes, we must be careful on what we claim the nuclear industry is creating in terms of "waste". Everyone wants to only think of the heavy metal reactor fuel waste, but a LOT more is out there due to the *creation* of that fuel rod.

        1. blackcat Silver badge

          Re: Hope

          The legacy of the rush for the bomb is not a all good and is a major stain on the whole situation. If you look at the state of Sellafield it is bloody awful. Hanford, Oakridge, Windscale/Sellafield, the site in the USSR that blew up on its own and I'm sure there are many others are NOT the result of civilian nuclear power generation. Yes we need to clean them up and moving to gen4 reactors will help with that. Current processes are not producing the same types of waste compared with the 1940s/50s attitude of 'f-it, we can clean that up later, maybe'.

          I am VERY pro nuclear but dumping waste into the sea? Heck no, which 'tard thought that would be good. They were not thinking very far, if at all, but that does not mean we should abandon what is really our only hope for meaningful CO2 reduction.

          Isn't thorium a byproduct of titanium and some other rare earth mineral processing? What is classed as 'low level waste' would be ignored if it was still in nature but as we've touched it we have to label it. If only we treated coal fly ash as such. In the US they have a major issue with the phosphogypsum waste from making fertilisers. This stuff is reasonably active and they have huge piles of it. The nuclear industry is not the only one producing radioactive waste but it is the only one taking heat for it.

          1. Mike 137 Silver badge

            Re: Hope

            "What is classed as 'low level waste' would be ignored if it was still in nature but as we've touched it we have to label it."

            The problem is concentration. In 'nature' these hazardous substances are generally so thinly distributed that they're not realistically a threat, whereas when dumped they're much more localised in quantity.

            1. blackcat Silver badge

              Re: Hope

              There are places in the world where it is naturally quite concentrated. And the 'dangers' of radon have only been known for a relatively short time but people have been living with it for centuries.

              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Background_radiation#Areas_with_high_natural_background_radiation

              They do treat pretty much anything and everything as low level even if it isn't actually contaminated or activated. And I believe the medical field is also a significant source of low level waste from all the various treatments they do.

              Worth a watch, quite frightening and it isn't from the nuclear industry:

              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8Mf3daq9Ss

        2. Cuddles

          Re: Hope

          Fair points, there is far less spent fuel than most people think, but there are other types of radioactive waste and engaging in too much hyperbole about how little there is probably isn't a great idea.

          That said, there are a couple of other points in response. Regarding low-level radioactive waste, a lot of that depends on local regulations and is often a matter of being overly cautious rather than sensible safety considerations. For example, I'm not in the nuclear industry but we do have to deal with radioactivity, and sustainability is a big consideration these days. That means figuring out how to re-use or recycle various bits of lab equipment and similar. Here in the UK, it's not too difficult - measure how radioactive something is, and if has become activated maybe leave it for a while before it can be sent somewhere else. Usually not even as long as a year. On the other hand, some French colleagues get very frustrated because French regulations essentially say that nothing that has been in an environment where any radiation is present can ever be moved off site ever again. Even if something is less radioactive than the ground outside, once it's entered a controlled radiation area and has to be measured, the limits are so low that it's pretty much impossible for it to ever stop being considered low-level waste. So the fact that there can be a lot of waste that is considered low level waste does not necessarily mean that's a sensible way to treat it. The leftovers after enriching uranium are, obviously, less radioactive than the ore you started with. But you can't just bury it in the same hole it came out of because now it's dangerous radioactive waste that must be disposed of safely.

          Secondly, it's important to remember that historical waste is not necessarily the same as new waste. A lot of the problems with contaminated ground exist because all kinds of crap was just dumped with no thought of consequences. A single barrel of water poured on the ground can contaminate thousands of tons of soil. The site I work at is currently dealing with a legacy of nuclear research. One part is practically a quarry where huge amounts of soil are being dug up and removed, not because it's all radioactive, but because no-one is even sure exactly what was dumped there in the '50s and '60s so some of it might be (and also potentially full of toxic chemicals and heavy metals). The Hanford site is likely similar. It doesn't really have 710k m3 of radioactive waste, it just has a huge amount of potentially contaminated crap from actual waste leaking out of inadequate tanks and similar.

          So sure, as I said nuclear waste is an issue and needs to be dealt with properly. But there is hopefully a middle ground somewhere between dumping it on the ground and pretending it's not there, and treating everything that's ever heard the word "nuclear" as high level waste that must be safely contained for millions of years. We've created a lot of radioactive waste in the past by our poor choices, not because it's inherent to nuclear power. And we continue to create a lot of radioactive waste because we choose to call it that, not necessarily because it actually is.

          And of course, the main point remains - fossil fuels are so polluting at every stage of their production and use that we really could just dump all our nuclear waste willy-nilly and still end up far better off than the current situation.

          1. I could be a dog really Bronze badge
            Facepalm

            Re: Hope

            And we continue to create a lot of radioactive waste because we choose to call it that, not necessarily because it actually is.

            This, this, and thrice this.

            As you point out, we can dig something out of the ground, remove some of it's radioactive material, and what's left cannot be put back where it came from as it's now "nuclear waste". And of course, a significant proportion of what is currently sat in ponds, waiting for very expensive processing and "forever" storage, is what would under any other circumstances be called "raw materials" or "fuel". It's a massive own goal by the anti-nuclear lobby to have successfully engineered a situation where the people who need to make such decisions are sh*t-scared to do so because the general population have been fed the lie that "nuclear = mushroom cloud explosions" and been misled to think that nuclear isn't and cannot be safe. So instead of building the sort of reactors that could usefully use all this fuel we have in storage and convert much of it to a significantly lesser volume of waste - we are spending sh*tloads of money throwing it away.

            Another example is in disposal of shut down plants. AIUI there wasa plan for the old Magnox plants - turn it off and keep it cool for a bit, then defuel it after which you can remove all the "non-nuclear" stuff like turbines and generators, at which point you are left with the reactor in it's secondary containment which is (very roughly speaking) not that much bigger than a house. But the reactor is still active with mostly short lived nuclides - so you just leave it for 100 years. After that, the nuclides have either (near enough) all gone because they are highly active, or are of no radiological concern as they are very long lived. So you cut a hole in the side, walk in, and carry out blocks of graphite from the core - yep, you can do that now without really much by way of protection. But instead of this cheap and safe option, producing little nuclear waste, what do we have to do ? No, we can't leave it to a future generation - we've got to do it now, spending loads of money that could more usefully be used improving the future that those future generations will live, and creating a big pile of nuclear waste.

            So why do we have a problem with the amount of waste from decommissioning ? Because the people complaining about the amount of waste forced us to make it a problem.

      2. jmch Silver badge

        Re: Hope

        "It's just less scary when everyone collectively decides not to think about it."

        Most certainly this! People's attention is focused on what others are talking about or what's on the news or their social media feed. What's out of sight is out of mind.

        That in turn, results in too many decisions taken by, and influenced by, people who not only know very little about a topic (bad enough), but who actually think they are well-informed (which is even worse). Classic Dunning-Kruger effect in action.

  2. Sceptic Tank Silver badge
    WTF?

    Buy My Stuff

    "Carbon neutrality" hype is driven people with wind turbines and solar panels to sell* – and those things must be manufactured somehow. I'd rather see pollution problems being addressed. But those won't sell the solar panels, which aren't exactly environmentally friendly. And tons of aluminium won't melt if left out in the sun either.

    * E.g. Urgenda Foundation v. State of the Netherlands

    1. ArrZarr Silver badge
      FAIL

      Re: Buy My Stuff

      So what is your solution for long term (100+ years) energy production?

      Even ignoring pollution and CO2, we're going to run out of coil/oil/gas at some point and there isn't exactly an endless supply of nuclear viable isotopes on earth.

      The benefit of solar/wind/tidal is that they can't run out unless something quite drastic (sun or moon disappearing) happens.

      1. pbgben

        Re: Buy My Stuff

        There will always be a resource required that's in limited supply or is bad for the environment in some way... Steel is needed for wind turbines and that needs coal, they also need a fair amount of oil in their gearboxes (that's what's burning when they catch fire) Solar panels are a silicon product, which is blamed for water shortages etc... There is no "good" option for energy production.

      2. Jan 0 Silver badge

        Re: Buy My Stuff

        > So what is your solution for long term (100+ years) energy production?

        Use less energy, of course! End the pursuit of more energy, more stuff.

        1. blackcat Silver badge

          Re: Buy My Stuff

          Not gonna happen. The 'global south' is growing its need for energy at an alarming rate as people are lifted out of poverty. The use less argument only works for us in the developed countries.

          1. Spazturtle Silver badge

            Re: Buy My Stuff

            It doesn't even work for those of us in developed countries either.

            Developed countries are not the final form of civilisation, and progress is driven by energy.

            Why would anyone want civilisation to stay at it's current state for the next 10k years.

            Our goal should be to increase energy production so that we can progress and future generations can colonise the stars.

        2. Spazturtle Silver badge

          Re: Buy My Stuff

          So you want the human race to regress then.

          All progress has been driven by the increased supply of energy in one form or another.

      3. I could be a dog really Bronze badge

        Re: Buy My Stuff

        we're going to run out of coil/oil/gas at some point

        Yes, at "some" point. But not in the next century, or two, or three, ... The "we're about to run out" people all fall foul of the difference between resources and reserves. At any one time, we typically "only" have around 20-30 years of reserves left before oil runs out. But reserves are what has been shown can be economically and technically extracted and processed for use. Beyond a couple of decades, no-one bothers looking at generating more reserves as there's no point. BU as reserves reduce, at some point it becomes worthwhile doing the work to convert another resource into a reserve - based on it being ready for use about when current reserves start running down a bit and prices would go if nothing came along to replace them.

        I strongly recommend reading The No Breakfast Fallacy.

        there isn't exactly an endless supply of nuclear viable isotopes

        Actually, we have MASSIVE quantities of them. And we also have quite a lot already dug out fo the ground but which we will be throwing away at very great expense. AIUI, with the right technology (which we have, just not the political will to allow to be used), we have in storage, in the UK right now, enough material to supply ALL the UK's electricity supplies for about a century. There are massive quantities in various parts of the world - though some of these locations are more politically contentious than others.

        So done right, we could go down the route of a massive conversion to nuclear (including secondary conversion, e.g. using nuclear power to generate green hydrogen which can then be converted in things like synthetic liquid fuels) without there being any risk of fuel shortage for "a long time".

        benefit of solar/wind/tidal is that they can't run out

        Err, you do realise that all three are driven by energy sources with a definite, non-infinite, supply don't you ? Solar and wind are driven (solar is primary, wind is a secondary effect) by a f-off huge nuclear reactor that converts 5 million tons of it's fuel every second.

        Tidal is driven by the rotation of the earth in the presence of the gravitational attraction of the sun and moon - and the earth IS slowing down.

        So yes, you are correct that in the timescales we are reasonably concerned with, these won't run out - but neither will fossil or nuclear fuels unless we (by applying stupid policies like throwing away good fuel (see above)) force them to run out.

  3. 42656e4d203239 Silver badge

    Really? Ready next Month?

    >>datacenters will keep eating up fossil fuels while waiting for renewable projects that are years away while that SMR will be ready next month.

    Show me a commercial SMR ready to go online next month (as in ready to switch on). All energy projects have a lead time, establishing a rule to allow them to go ahead does nothing to reduce that (other than allowing ground to be broken).

    Seems to me that If we spent as much money and effort on sorting out renewables as we do rubbishing them, and subsidising fossil fuels, many of the currently mythical renewable projects/systems would be much closer to being 'ready next month' - or indeed thrown in the bin as genuinely unworkable as opposed to being thrown in the bin because they threaten "Old Energy".

  4. fpx
    Coat

    Prepping for the coming zombie apocalypse, can I get one of them for my underground volcano island lair?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Is that the Brexit Zombie apocalypse, The Trump Zombie apocalypse (currently delayed, service not expected before 2024); The Climate Change Zombie apocalypse, The COVID (Chinese Flu) Zombie apocalypse, the 'If we give aid to Ukraine' Zombie apocalypse, or is there another one that I missed the memo for?

      1. MyffyW Silver badge

        A pretty comprehensive list, but you did forget to mention Albanian migrants - also extra marks will awarded for adding in capitals "won't somebody think of the children!"

        And, let me go for broke, with a pure piece of whataboutary - the "We're running out of Phosphorous" apocalypse

        1. MyffyW Silver badge

          ...and the antibiotic resistance apocalyps... damn, I'll come in again

    2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Zombies aren't real. You should worry about ORCS.

  5. Chipwidget

    Timing is everything

    "that SMR will be ready next month" but you already told us the first will be ready in 2029 and I'm guessing that depends on finance etc. Renewable projects that are "years away" will probably be ready sooner and no 35 x radioactive waste.

    1. SkippyBing

      Re: Timing is everything

      And on a windless cloudy winter day in the UK those renewable projects still won't be supplying power.

      1. Mark 124

        Re: Timing is everything

        https://www.theregister.com/2022/09/30/chinese_battery_vrfb_us_patents/

        The technology is ready, just not the politics, it seems

        1. I could be a dog really Bronze badge

          Re: Timing is everything

          The technology is ready

          Only with your renewables reality distortion field active.

          Yes, they've spun up a 'kin big battery. And yes, it can go bigger. But it's not enough, by a very very very very very very long way to making a dent in the primary problem with renewables.

          Take an event like December 2010 - which wasn't unique by any stretch. The whole of the UK, and IIRC much of Europe too, was covered by a static high pressure system. Yes we had some wonderful sunshine - at a shallow angle, and for short days, so by 3-4pm it was gone. But we had f-all wind. And this persisted for a couple of weeks at a time when lecky demand was high due to the short days and cold temperatures (where I live, it barely got above freezing during the days).

          So in a renewables only world, for UK only and lecky only, we're talking of tens of GW shortfall in generation - for a couple of weeks. Lets say 30GW (UK demand can reach 60GW, but I'm being conservative here), for 10 days - that's 30 * 24 * 10 GWHr, or over 7,000GWHr. That's for lecky only, and don't forget our government is pushing us to use much much more lecky by switching from gas/petrol/diesel for both heating and transport.

          That battery you link to is 400MWHr, or 0.4GWHr, or put another way, you'd need 15,000 to 20,000 of them to cover our needs for the UK alone.

          That's not to say it's not possible, but a "standard" sized modern nuclear plant will provide you with a GW+ of power - day and night, summer and winter, and I suspect at a significantly lower price than an equivalent quantity* of renewables plug battery backup.

          * Rough back of fag packet estimate. You'd need something like 5GW of wind capacity (rating plate), plus "a few" GWHr of battery backup to match 1GW of fully dispatchable generation. To cover just one day of calm, you'd need 24GWHr of battery capacity.

          That's not to say renewables don't have a big part to play, but to think that there is any way whatsoever using technology currently known, even in the "works on a scientists piece of paper" stage, could come close to supplying 100% of our energy needs, at anything even vaguely affordable in price, is to be seriously misinformed of facts. Unless, your definition of "works" is that we all shut down and huddle round a blanket when the weather doesn't play ball.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Timing is everything

        Meanwhile the nukes will be fine; just about 2 decades late, 4 times over budget, produce about 8 times as much waste as promised and probably shut down after 16 years when they find the cracks in the pipes.

        1. MyffyW Silver badge

          Re: Timing is everything

          Heysham 2 is hardly a poster child for reliability and yet has run since 1988 and is expected to run until 2028.

  6. Adam JC

    'Carbon-neutral'

    I haven't seen this mentioned anywhere before, but is it feasible to install an SMR (Or several) on-board a huge shipping container or cruise ship? Shipping accounts for ~3% of global emissions so seems logical to replace the dirty, heavy oil they burn with something like this although I doubt the financials of fitting an SMR to a ship compares to cheap-as-hell heavy fuel.

    1. Spazturtle Silver badge

      Re: 'Carbon-neutral'

      Most SMRs are already just repurposed naval reactors. The shipping industry was moving to nuclear powered cargo ships in the middle of last century and several were built and used but the anti-nuclear groups got them banned from most ports so the industry gave up on the idea.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Russian uranium

    Two months ago (Fri 16 Dec 2022) The Reg reported an article with the headline "Bill Gates' nuclear power plant stalled by Russian fuel holdup" and in the body "The debut of Bill Gates' advanced nuclear power plant will be delayed for at least two years because the only company that makes its fuel [HALEU] in sufficient quantities to make it work is located in Russia".

    The US Department of Energy (DOE) awarded a contract to Centrus Energy's (LEU) subsidiary American Centrifuge Operating LLC (ACO) of Bethesda, Maryland, to produce HALEU. ACO anticipates ramping up to 900 kg HALEU a year. But how much of the demand will that cover? So far I've only been able to locate a vague statement: "40 tonnes of HALEU before the end of the decade to support the current administration's goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035" Using the very crude estimate of counting six years from 2023 to 2029 and dividing the 40 tonnes by six yields a figure that suggest six times more HALEU is needed than 900 kg.That strongly suggest that 900 kg/year is not going to be enough.

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