Are mini nuclear reactors the future of high-end energy development — or a wasteful government boondoggle?
While it may or may not be great that profitable companies like Babcock & Wilcox and Toshiba are researching these mini or even micro reactors (don’t worry, they won’t fit in a suitcase, or even in your basement), the group Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) has dinged the program as its recipient of the 2013 Golden Fleece Award, for sucking down potentially half a billion dollars in taxpayer money.
“The nation is two days away from the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration,” notes Ryan Alexander, president of TCS. “But at the same time we are hearing the Department of Energy and the nuclear industry evangelizing about the benefits of small modular reactors. In reality, we cannot afford to pile more market-distorting subsidies to profitable companies on top of the billions of dollars we already gave away.”
Indeed, at a time when that much money could pay for some substantial progress in growing fields like biofuels or solar power, you have to wonder why companies like Babcock & Wilcox need any help from the government at all.
Possible benefits of the reactors:
- Smaller and cheaper, so could be used to replace coal-fired plants. “We’re not trying to build a Rolls Royce; we’re trying to build a Ford.”
- Self-contained and “plug and play”, so maybe safer.
- Can be a painless source of off-grid power.
- Could be 100% made in America.
But the TCS says the possible drawbacks are legion:
- The energy they generate just won’t be cost-effective.
- And that’s at current estimates — nuclear companies are notorious for over — estimating benefits and under-estimating costs.
- Before anything can be built, it’ll take years for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to evaluate these new designs.
- Each of these new reactors would be a potential terrorist target, multiplying the security nightmare.
- And we still have no way of dealing with nuclear waste.
“The nuclear industry has a tradition of rushing forth to proclaim that a new technology, just around the corner, will take care of whatever problem exists,” says Autumn Hanna, senior program director for TCS. “Unfortunately, these technologies have an equally long tradition of expensive failure. If the industry believes in small modular reactors and a reactor in every backyard – great – but don’t expect the taxpayer to pick up the tab.”
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