The Biden administration is brushing off claims of a crisis in the advanced nuclear energy industry after NuScale canceled a major project in Idaho this week.
But the announcement that NuScale — the only U.S. developer with a small modular reactor (SMR) design approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — is scrapping its Carbon Free Power Project is stirring speculation that the technology may not be as viable as once believed.
“The cancellation of the NuScale project proves what a terrible bet nuclear energy is for climate — one the [Department of Energy] continues to lose on,” said Tim Judson, executive director of the nonprofit anti-nuclear Nuclear Information and Resource Service, in an email.
A senior DOE official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told E&E News on Thursday that the department “stands ready to continue the work that we’re already doing, not just in support of the NuScale technology, but for other small modular reactor developers as well.”
“I’m rather bullish on how nuclear is going to help solve our challenges in getting to the carbon reductions that we’re striving to achieve,” the official said.
SMRs are scaled-down and carbon-free sources of energy designed for replication, hence the name “modular.” But they’ve been too expensive for commercial developers so far to bring online. NuScale cited a lack of subscribers in scrapping the Carbon Free Power Project, which had been slated to be the country’s first commercial SMR, housed at Idaho National Laboratory.
Skeptics of SMRs and other advanced reactors like Edwin Lyman, the nuclear power safety director for the environmental organization Union of Concerned Scientists, say the economic fundamentals just aren’t there to make the technology work for much of the industry.
The group supports the country’s existing nuclear fleet as necessary to supply carbon-free energy. But it said NuScale made “several ill-advised design choices in an attempt to control the cost of its reactor” that led to poor safety.
The design lacked leak-tight containment structures and had one control room for 12 reactor units, despite NRC requirements that one control room serve no more than two units, the group said.
“From a pragmatic, realistic perspective, NuScale’s design was one of the most likely designs to be commercialized,” Lyman said in an interview. “So I think the fact that even it is not succeeding is a real indication of how unlikely and unviable these other designs are.”
“There’s a reactor bubble out there, and I think this may be the first one to pop,” he added.
Yet NRC spokesperson Scott Burnell said in an email that the advanced nuclear industry is still seeing a number of robust developments. The commission is in the final stages of considering whether to issue a construction permit for a test version of an advanced reactor from Kairos Power, a California-based developer.
Burnell also noted that X-energy and Dow plan to apply for an SMR design at a Dow facility on the Texas coast, and Holtec International is considering placing its SMR design at sites where it’s decommissioning former nuclear power plants.
X-energy and Dow did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“The need for next-generation nuclear technology to ensure clean, carbon-free baseload power remains,” said Patrick O’Brien, government affairs and communications director at Holtec. “We remain on our planned schedule and path towards submittal to the NRC for design, approval, licensing and deployment.”
Will other SMRs follow?
The Biden administration, which spent at least $200 million on the NuScale project, isn’t pivoting away from nuclear. A DOE report earlier this year projected a potential tripling of nuclear power in the U.S. by 2050, the point at which the administration wants to fully decarbonize the U.S. economy.
Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act and the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law also offered subsidies for advanced nuclear.
Despite Wednesday’s cancellation, DOE says the NuScale project yielded benefits.
“We’ve gotten good value out of this project that we can use, not only for future NuScale deployments domestically, but also for deployments of other technologies at that site,” said the senior DOE official.
The official added that the project produced two years of environmental data that’s necessary for licensing, along with “tangible hardware being developed.”
An official at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), a DOE-affiliated facility that was the host site of the NuScale project, pointed to several other SMR projects underway in the U.S., including an Oklo Inc. reactor that the lab is helping to develop. The official said costs are likely to drop once more small reactors are built.
“We need to deploy. We need to build multiple plants to take the experience from the firsts and apply them to future ones to get the cost down,” Jess Gehin, INL associate laboratory director for nuclear science and technology, said in an interview.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, the main industry lobbying group, says inflation is boosting costs for SMRs and the industry in general.
“I don’t think this is a nuclear exceptionalism issue. I think this is a ‘making sure we get these first technologies right’ problem,” said Benton Arnett, senior director for markets and policy at NEI.
As for NuScale, the company said it will be able to transfer some of its progress to other developments from its now-canceled Idaho project.
“NuScale has made substantial progress toward preparing our technology for deployment, maturing our design and developing our supply chain,” NuScale spokesperson Diane Hughes said.
Hughes added that materials and information from the project could be used to support and expedite other NuScale initiatives, such as those with Standard Power and ENTRA1 Energy — projects in Ohio and Pennsylvania that are in early stages of development. They chose NuScale as a development partner last month.
NuScale’s stock price saw a steep drop last month, and the stock plunged Thursday after the Wednesday announcement. Hughes insisted that interest in NuScale remains.
“We continue to see high levels of interest in the many applications of our technology from major industrial companies, utilities, local governments and others seeking clean, reliable energy and process heat,” she said.
Burnell from the NRC said once there are formal updates from NuScale and the Carbon Free Power Project, the agency will “determine which related projects will continue and which will be closed out in an orderly fashion.”
Other developers of SMRs, meanwhile, said they are still moving forward with existing projects.
A TerraPower spokesperson, who was granted anonymity to speak, said the organization is still “fully committed” to its Natrium Demonstration Project, a reactor project the company is collaborating on with the utility PacifiCorp. The company is backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
Rita Baranwal, senior vice president for energy systems at Westinghouse, also said its AP300 small modular reactor design is generating “strong interest” around the globe.
“We know, perhaps better than anyone, how challenging it is to bring new, advanced nuclear energy technology to the marketplace,” Baranwal, a top DOE official under President Donald Trump, said in an email. “The shift to a cleaner, more secure energy mix will require SMRs, large reactors and microreactors, such as our eVinci technology, to be successful.”
Utilities still on board
The NuScale announcement came as a number of electric utilities have made SMRs a key to lowering emissions and meeting future demands for more dispatchable energy.
Duke Energy is pushing to add new advanced nuclear to its fleet to help replace coal-fired generation at a plant in Stokes County, N.C. It’s aiming to bring two SMRs, capable of producing 300 megawatts each, online by 2035.
Duke spokesperson Mary Kathryn Green said in an email that “extending the life of our existing nuclear fleet and adding next-generation nuclear technologies starting in the mid-2030s” are key to cutting climate-warming emissions. Existing technologies can only get the company to cut about 70 percent of its carbon emissions, Green said.
“SMRs will play a significant role in our Carolinas operations,” she added when asked about the NuScale cancellation and its possible ripple effects.
The country’s largest public power provider, the Tennessee Valley Authority, also is planning 20 SMRs as part of its energy portfolio in the coming decades, if it can bring one online in the coming years. TVA did not comment on the NuScale decision’s potential impacts.
Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems — NuScale’s partner in the now-canceled project — also hasn’t ruled out more nuclear power as part of meeting its energy demands. UAMPS is a group of local electric utilities that had agreed to purchase power from the project.
“UAMPS will continue to evaluate nuclear as a valuable dispatchable energy source that can effectively complement renewable resources,” spokesperson Jessica Stewart said in an email.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported where Duke Energy is pushing to add new advanced nuclear reactors.