MidAmerican doesn’t need to study small nuclear reactors

Dr. Maureen McCue and Dr. MV Ramana

  • Dr. Maureen McCue recently retired from the University of Iowa.
  • She is a primary care physician and has also taught and traveled as a professor of global health and human rights for many years.
  • MV Ramana is the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security and Professor in the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Again, MidAmerican Energy has expressed interest in studying nuclear reactors for Iowa. Earlier, between 2010 and 2013, MidAmerican researched the feasibility of nuclear power for Iowa and concluded that it didn’t make sense. This time around, MidAmerican doesn’t even have to jump into the study. We already know that the nuclear industry’s new offerings, small modular reactors, or SMRs, carry the same economic and environmental risks as their larger predecessors and make no sense for Iowa, or anywhere else for that matter.

In 2013, Wall Street firm Lazard estimated the cost of generating electricity at a new nuclear plant in the United States would be between $86 and $122 per megawatt hour. Last November, Lazard estimated the corresponding cost to be between $131 and $204 per megawatt-hour. Over the same eight years, renewable energy costs have plummeted, and 2021 estimates of electricity from newly built large-scale solar and wind power plants are between $26 and $50 per megawatt-hour. Nuclear energy is simply not economically competitive.

SMRs will be even less competitive. Building and operating SMRs will cost more than large reactors for each unit (megawatt) of generating capacity. A reactor that generates five times more electricity will not require five times more concrete or five times more workers. This makes electricity from small reactors more expensive; many small reactors built in the United States were not financially competitive and closed prematurely.

Another view:5 Reasons to Be Skeptical of MidAmerican’s Future Energy Plans

The estimated cost of building a 600 megawatt power plant from SMR NuScale, arguably the closest design to deployment in the United States, has fallen from about $3 billion in 2014 to $6 billion. $1 billion in 2020. The cost was so high that at least ten members of Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems canceled their contracts. NuScale then changed its proposed plant configuration to reduce the number of reactors that only produce 462 megawatts at a cost of $5.32 billion. For every kilowatt of power-generating capacity, that estimate is about 80% higher than the cost per kilowatt of the Vogtle project in Georgia — before its cost exploded from $14 billion to over $30 billion. Based on historical experience of building nuclear reactors, SMRs are very likely to cost significantly more than initially expected.

And they will be delayed. In 2008, officials announced that “a NuScale plant could produce electricity by 2015-2016”. Currently, the Utah project is expected to begin operating in 2029-30. All this before the inevitable setbacks that will occur once construction begins.

Time is essential to deal with global warming. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, emissions must be drastically reduced by 2030 to stop the irreversible damage of climate change.

Small reactors are also associated with all the usual problems of nuclear power: severe accidents, the production of radioactive waste and the potential for proliferation of nuclear weapons. Indeed, some of these problems could be worse. For every unit of electricity produced, SMRs will actually produce more nuclear waste than large reactors. Whether generated by a large or a small power plant, nuclear waste remains radioactive and dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. There is no proven solution to sustainably isolate this deadly waste, for both technical and social reasons.

Dr. Maureen McCue of the Iowa Physicians for Social Responsibility at the Iowa Environmental Council Lobby Day.

Most new nuclear reactor designs will rely on water sources for cooling. Nuclear power plants have some of the highest requirements for water withdrawal; in the United States, the median value of water withdrawal has been calculated at 44,350 gallons per megawatt-hour of electricity produced, which is about four times the corresponding figure for a combined cycle natural gas plant. Renewable energies require little or no water because there is no heat production. Iowa’s lakes and rivers are already under threat from global warming, existing power plants and polluting industries.

In medicine, a basic principle used to guide our decisions is “first, do no harm”. This principle will be violated if Iowa embarks on SMR construction. Small modular reactors and nuclear power represent a dangerous distraction from the changes needed to address global warming. Investing in these technologies will divert money away from more sustainable and rapidly built solutions, including wind and solar power, micro-grids, batteries and other forms of energy storage, and energy-efficient appliances.

MV Ramana

Dr. Maureen McCue, a practicing primary care physician who also taught and traveled as a professor of global health and human rights for many years, recently retired from the University of Iowa. Dr. MV Ramana is the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security and Professor in the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

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