The New Debate: Fukushima and Small Modular Nuclear ReactorsBy This essay is quite different from what I would have written pre-Fukushima but it's pretty hard at the moment to think about anything nuclear from a different reference point. Fukushima has reopened the global discussion about the future of nuclear power. Several factors had led many countries to consider expanding their nuclear capacity, reversing phaseouts or initiating new nuclear programs. These include a very good safety and reliability record for the last decades, increasing concern about the risks of climate change and a concomitant recognition that enormous amounts of additional electric generating capacity will be needed without increasing greenhouse gas and other polluting emissions. Exactly how the new debate will end will remain unclear for some time, as the events and responses in Japan are investigated and understood fully, and as safety systems, operating procedures, regulatory oversight, emergency response plans and spent fuel management are reexamined for currently operating reactors.
Nevertheless, some outcomes are a good bet: the cost of doing business at nuclear reactors will go up; and the expected relicensing of forty-year-old nuclear plants for another twenty years of operation will be given a hard look. Indeed even the license extensions already granted for the majority of the 104 plants operating in the U.S. might be revisited. These plants, like those at Fukushima, rely to a large extent on active safety systems in case of accidents or natural disasters.
The consequences of such outcomes could be great. New nuclear power plant construction is already challenged by high capital costs, and increased capital and operating costs could be the last straw for many projects. If the anticipated life extensions are not realized to any appreciable degree, we will be faced with replacing tens of thousands of Megawatts of non-emitting generation. For the U.S., this is not an immediate problem since the end of the original forty-year reactor operating periods will not be reached for most plants for a while, and we have both substantially underutilized natural gas generation and lots of natural gas. Natural gas does have emissions, but far less than coal, and will serve as a bridge to a very low emissions future. However, the challenge of developing and demonstrating "no-emissions" options for 2020 and beyond is an immediate challenge, given the significant timeline from R&D to regulatory approval to market. Next generation nuclear plants with advanced passive safety systems are among those options, including small modular reactors (SMRs).