From oil fields to wind turbines to coal mines, size and scale rule the economics of energy.
But the nuclear industry is thinking small these days.
The latest evidence came last week when Ameren Missouri and Westinghouse Electric Co. announced plans to pursue a $452 million federal subsidy to advance development of small modular reactors that could be built alongside the utility’s much larger Callaway nuclear plant near Fulton, Mo.
While some utilities are still pursuing full-scale plants, there is a parallel push for smaller reactors that could be easier for utilities to finance and minimize sticker shock for regulators and consumers. But despite a lower total cost, there’s no evidence yet that tiny fission factories would be able to produce electricity at a competitive cost in an era of abundant, cheap natural gas.
"There just isn’t any proof that small reactors are going to be any more economic than larger ones," said Peter Bradford, an adjunct law professor at Vermont Law School and a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member. "At this point, it’s all about hype and hope."
The so-called small nuclear reactors promise the same benefits as larger ones: namely, an option for around-the-clock, low-carbon electric generation that could be a key in replacing aging coal plants.
For utilities considering nuclear technology, the smaller size means a smaller price. Even using the most generous cost estimates, a new nuclear plant the size of Ameren Missouri’s existing Callaway plant could rival or exceed the $7.5 billion market value of the utility’s entire parent company.
But the differences go beyond size. For one, the small reactors envisioned would be modular, able to be manufactured at a central factory, shipped by rail, ships or truck and assembled on site. That means a potentially larger market for vendors like Westinghouse.
"This (small) plant will appeal to a very broad market," Kate Jackson, a Westinghouse senior vice president and chief technology officer said last week.