June 01, 2013

Small modular reactors might end up being lower cost energy if the full advantages of factory mass production can be leveraged

Analysts and decision makers frequently want estimates of the cost of technologies that have yet to be developed or deployed. (PNAS - Expert assessments of the cost of light water small modular reactors) Small modular reactors (SMRs), which could become part of a portfolio of carbon-free energy sources, are one such technology. Existing estimates of likely SMR costs rely on problematic top-down approaches or bottom-up assessments that are proprietary. When done properly, expert elicitations can complement these approaches. We developed detailed technical descriptions of two SMR designs and then conduced elicitation interviews in which we obtained probabilistic judgments from 16 experts who are involved in, or have access to, engineering-economic assessments of SMR projects. Here, we report estimates of the overnight cost and construction duration for five reactor-deployment scenarios that involve a large reactor and two light water SMRs. Consistent with the uncertainty introduced by past cost overruns and construction delays, median estimates of the cost of new large plants vary by more than a factor of 2.5. Expert judgments about likely SMR costs display an even wider range. Median estimates for a 45 megawatts-electric (MWe) SMR range from $4,000 to $16,300/kWe and from $3,200 to $7,100/kWe for a 225-MWe SMR. Sources of disagreement are highlighted, exposing the thought processes of experts involved with SMR design. There was consensus that SMRs could be built and brought online about 2 years faster than large reactors. Experts identify more affordable unit cost, factory fabrication, and shorter construction schedules as factors that may make light water SMRs economically viable.

A problem is that current [US] law prohibits more than two reactors from being operated from the same control room, making it illegal to site lots of the small modular reactors together. However, most of the experts believed that, if legal, installing a series of the small reactors could increase economies of scale and reduce costs. The main advantage to a small module reactor is the standardized factory production, which would certainly be cheaper than custom components.

China does not have the limitation on control rooms.

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