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Why Downsizing Nuclear Reactors May Save The Industry

With cheap shale gas and falling power costs from renewables such as solar, nuclear power looks like yesterday’s technology but, for two reasons, it still matters greatly.

Not just in the U.S. but in many other countries where the technology is already well established and where the search for less polluting alternatives to coal has been picking up.

Nuclear power still generates 19 percent of the electricity consumed in the U.S. and is arguably the most reliable base-load provider, not just for day-to-day supply but for decade-to-decade. Emitting zero carbon emissions during power generation (green lobbies would claim considerable CO2 is released during construction, not least of which comes from the amount of concrete involved in containment structures) nuclear power plants have been operating for nearly 50 years.

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Perfectly Operating Plants Shutting Down

A New York Times article tells the story of the H.B. Robinson nuclear power plant, about 70 miles from Columbia, S.C. It has been producing electricity with few interruptions since the Nixon administration. The plant is scheduled to be shut down by 2030, when it will be six decades old. Nor is it alone, between 2029 and 2035 about a third of the country’s 99 reactors will have their operating licenses expire and, as it stands, will therefore close.

There continues to be a significant amount of research money flowing from government departments such as the Department Of Energy into research facilities like the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), but no clear vision has yet emerged about which technology will be the most suitable if the industry is to continue contributing a significant portion of the county’s power in the decades to come.

Small Packages

The nuclear industry makes no claims that this will change soon. New technologies can take 20 years to reach regulatory approval and for plants to then be built. Still, in both the U.S. and in the U.K. one design concept that could come to market sooner rather than later already has an established track record.

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Small modular reactors (SMRs) are, as the name suggests, units designed to produce power at a much smaller scale than the 1,000-2,000 megawatts of current new build designs. Typically, SMRs are 300 mw or less and plans in the U.S. by NuScale, a firm working with Utah Associated Municipal Power, envisage reactors being built in a factory and transported by road or rail to a generating site where they would be grouped together in a modular fashion. The most advanced is the Intermountain West project which envisages 12 small reactors operating at a site by the middle of the next decade.

SMRs Across the Pond

In the U.K., a firm with 50 years of experience building SMR’s for the British Royal Navy’s fleet of nuclear powered submarines says it can generate power at less than a fifth of the price of new, much-delayed projects such as Britain’s proposed massive 3,200 mw Hinkley Point project. Rolls-Royce has submitted detailed plans to the British government for SMRs capable of generating 220 mw that could be used in tandem with larger arrays depending on the local demand and infrastructure and, even with the need for regulatory approval for civilian use, could be operational within 10 years.

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Wind and solar power have come to represent a significant portion of installed capacity in many countries, but their contribution is variable and subsidies, although falling, have been controversial. Not that nuclear will not need guaranteed tariffs to be viable but it does, like renewables, have such a low carbon footprint that its attraction in meeting emission targets outweighs, at least in legislators’ eyes, the cost. Furthermore, unlike renewables, nuclear is outstandingly reliable to meet base-load demand.

In the current climate of low-cost natural gas, new capacity is being built using shale gas in the U.S. The extent to which this replaces coal is positive for reducing carbon emissions, but its replacement of aging nuclear plants will have the opposite effect.

Big is not always beautiful. Or better, the future for nuclear power may follow the saying that the best things come in small packages.

By Stuart Burns via Agmetalminer.com

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  • Asteroid Miner on March 26 2016 said:
    Natural gas is a greenhouse gas and burned natural gas is a greenhouse gas.

    Nuclear power is the only way to stop making CO2 that actually works. To stop Global Warming, we must replace all large fossil fueled power plants with nuclear.

    Renewable Energy mandates cause more CO2 to be produced, not less, and renewable energy doubles or quadruples your electric bill. The reasons are as follows:

    Since solar “works” 15% of the time and wind “works” 20% of the time, we need either energy storage technology we don’t have or ambient temperature superconductors and we don’t have them either. Wind and solar are so intermittent that electric companies are forced to build new generator capacity that can load-follow very fast, and that means natural gas fired gas turbines. The gas turbines have to be kept spinning at full speed all the time to ramp up quickly enough. The result is that wind and solar not only double your electric bill, wind and solar also cause MORE CO2 to be produced.

    We do not have battery or energy storage technology that could smooth out wind and solar at a price that would be possible to do. The energy storage would "cost" in the neighborhood of a QUADRILLION dollars for the US. That is an imaginary price because we could not get the materials to do it if we had that much money.

    The only real way to reduce CO2 production from electricity generation is to replace all fossil fueled power plants with the newest available generation of nuclear. Nuclear can load-follow fast enough as long as wind and solar power are not connected to the grid.  Generation 4 nuclear can ramp fast enough to make up for the intermittency of wind and solar, but there is no reason to waste time and money on wind and solar.

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