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The Debate Over Small Nuclear Reactors

A rendering of a Small Modular Reactor that Rolls-Royce SMR hopes to have operational by 2030, provided by Rolls-Royce SMR, Sept. 9, 2022.
The Debate Over Small Nuclear Reactors
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The search for alternatives to Russian energy sources during the war in Ukraine has renewed interest in small nuclear power stations. Supporters say the stations could provide lower-cost energy compared to larger stations.

Critics, however, worry about the risks to the environment. They also worry that having more power stations will make it easier for some countries to build nuclear weapons.

Small power stations are called small modular reactors or SMRs for short. Modular means the components of the power stations can be built in a factory and then assembled where the station is to be built.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, says more than 70 commercial SMR designs are being developed around the world.

Because they are smaller and easier to build, SMRs are less costly than larger reactors. However, SMRs provide less energy. Large stations usually provide between 1,000 and 1,450 megawatts of electricity while SMRs usually provide between 50 and 300 megawatts.

Rolls-Royce is a company with plans to build SMRs. The company is based in Britain. The estimated cost of a Rolls-Royce SMR is $2.5 to $3.2 billion. The estimated time to build one is five-and one-half years.

The IAEA said that is two years faster than it took to build a normal nuclear plant between 2016 and 2021. By comparison, the estimated cost of building a 1,100-megawatt nuclear plant is between $6 billion and $9 billion.

NuScale Power is an American company with plans to build SMRs. It is based in the state of Oregon. It plans to build its first SMR in the state of Idaho by 2029 or 2030. And it signed agreements last year with two Polish companies to study the possibility of building SMRs to power industry there. Poland wants to depend less on coal-fueled electricity production.

Rolls-Royce aims to build its first stations in Britain within six years. Last month, Rolls-Royce SMR said that it signed a deal with a company in the Netherlands, ULC-Energy, to consider building SMRs there.

Rolls-Royce SMR spokesman Dan Gould said that because of the war in Ukraine, “the reliance on gas imports and Russian energy sources has focused people’s minds on energy security.”

Environmentalists argue that having more nuclear reactors will worsen the problem of how to dispose of nuclear waste.

Workers are seen near storage tanks for radioactive water at Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan January 15, 2020. Picture taken January 15, 2020. (REUTERS/Aaron Sheldrick)
Workers are seen near storage tanks for radioactive water at Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan January 15, 2020. Picture taken January 15, 2020. (REUTERS/Aaron Sheldrick)

M.V. Ramana is a professor of public policy and global affairs at the University of British Columbia. He said that research suggests there is no proven way to make sure that nuclear waste will not escape in the future.

Ramana said the heat generated by the waste could change rock formations where it’s stored and let water leak. He said mining activities could make the storage place weaker.

Critics also say that bringing SMRs to more countries increases the risk that they could build nuclear weapons. Professor Ramana says that one SMR could produce “around 10 bombs worth of plutonium each year.” Ramana said that a high-level reprocessing technology is not required to produce the amount of plutonium needed for weapons.

But Gould said Rolls-Royce obeys British and international rules for exporting SMR technology. He said they export only to countries that have signed “the necessary international treaties for the peaceful use of nuclear power for energy generation.”

However, Ramana said there is no guarantee nations will follow the rules.

I’m Andrew Smith.

Andrew Smith adapted this Associated Press story for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

alternative –n. another choice or option

components –n. the pieces or parts of something that will be built or put together, such as the parts of a car, house, machine, and the like

assemble -v. put together and build. For example, a car is assembled in a factory

reliance on/rely on –n/-v. to need something or someone for help

dispose of -v. ­to put or throw something away into a place where it will not be used again

store -v. to keep something in a container, usually either for future use or to keep something safe; for example, food is stored in a refrigerator


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