If nuclear power has a future, it will likely be small, modular and water-cooled, according to a world-renowned expert in nuclear research.
“Today there are many technologies: 50 different models in the world. Once one of them enters a financially viable equation, it will capture the whole market,” said George Washington University research professor Alfredo Caro, “and I think that will happen with small water-cooled reactors.
The economic benefits of small modular reactors (SMRs) are often cited: produced in the factory and shipped to installation sites, they can avoid the regulatory labyrinths, cost overruns and construction delays that plague traditional reactor projects.
The 50 designs and concepts being developed include models cooled by sodium, lead, gas or molten salt, but Caro thinks the water-cooled SMRs will have an added benefit: the lessons of history.
“Why? Because there are something like 20,000 years of reactor operational experience with water-cooled reactors and the fuel for those reactors,” he told a conference on Wednesday. by the Security and Sustainability Forum.
“It would be very difficult to come out with something sodium cooled, lead cooled, like a spherical fuel, economically competitive with traditional technology, so I think eventually we’ll see all the models available that are water cooled , they have a niche,” he said.
“I personally believe it will happen. There will be plenty of small, water-cooled reactors. So the same technology that dominates so well today, with only three accidents in 60 years of history.
The three accidents Caro refers to are the three major accidents that crippled the growth of the nuclear industry: Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011.
The Union of Concerned Scientists counts seven “serious” accidents, in addition to those above: a partial collapse in Michigan in 1966, an explosion in Idaho in 1961, a partial collapse in Los Angeles in 1959 and a fire in Cumbria, UK, in 1957.
Even so, nuclear ranks near the death rate for solar and wind power, well below coal, oil and gas, in terms of deaths per terawatt-hour of electricity produced.
“Nuclear is by far the safest way to generate electricity,” Caro said, although his assessment does not include solar and wind power. “However, the perception of risk is subjective.”
A bigger hurdle is cost, he said: “On average, it’s more expensive than any other source.”
Taxpayers in the UK will pay three times the average electricity price for 35 years to repay the cost of building the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which is about 11 years behind schedule.
“Obviously it’s very difficult to justify the investment,” Caro said.
The most recent reactor to be commissioned, Olkiluoto 3 in Finland, took 17 years to build. “There is no way to have an economic equation that ends favorably for the investor if the construction time is 17 years.”
These are the challenges SMRs are designed to meet.
“History tells us that in the 1960s and 1970s, when current nuclear technology was developed, all of the Generation IV options were tested, and the water-cooled reactor came out on top because it was the cheaper. Once you have a technology that wins the economic competition, nothing can stop it. Today, I think all commercial reactors are water cooled. I think the same will happen with the small modular reactor.
Caro directed the Atomic Center and the Balseiro Institute in Argentina, and he worked for many other programs, including the European fusion program at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, the fusion program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Science of Nuclear Materials and Fuels team. at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He was also program director for the National Science Foundation.