Nuclear Energy Small Modular Reactor

We often wonder about the end game for Green Energy advocates…

When the often-discussed 2050 deadline to reach ‘net zero’ carbon emissions is reached, perhaps that will be when we realize it isn’t a practical goal without Nuclear Power?

Or maybe that inflection point will occur sooner?

In either case, one has to think critically about the implications for moving from a fossil-fuel based economy to one dominated by ‘clean energy’.

Notice we said ‘clean’ — not ‘renewable’…

The truth: the distinction may be less important than it’s made out to be – for all practical purposes, nuclear energy is just as ‘clean’ and sustainable as every other ‘renewable’ energy source…if not even more so. 

To the extent renewable energy is equated to energy with a ‘re-generating supply’, nuclear power couldn’t be a much better fit. The fuel has such a high energy return on energy invested (EROEI) that it outshines every other available technology, most by a factor of two or more (D. Weißbach et al). 

Energy Intensities, EROIs (D. Weißbach et al.)

All renewable technologies including wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal and biomass tend to have similar burdens to bear for their implementation. Most notable is the utilization of a spectrum of (sometimes difficult to obtain) raw material inputs – not all of which are ‘clean’.

So why not pursue nuclear energy with vigor? Well, the leading arguments against nuclear are safety, cost, and waste disposal – in roughly that order. The cost and waste disposal headwinds are both interconnected with an oppressive regulatory regime for nuclear energy. This artificial constraint must bealleviated if the technology is to reach its full potential. We will address the safety and cost components in this post and leave waste disposal for another time.

All that said, the winds are changing in Washington. The political class is re-examining energy priorities in light of the demands for net-zero carbon emissions, a shift they realize can’t be accomplished without the scale and reliability of the clean energy provided by nuclear technology. 

To address costs, firms have focused efforts on Small Modular Reactor (“SMR”) technology designed to produce plants with ~60 MW of capacity, enough to power a town of 100,000. Designing systems that can be delivered by truck or rail, for example the 9′ x 65′ NuScale SMR Unit, provides a clearer path to manufacturing-style deployment of nuclear plants. This advancement opens the door for economies of scale to be realized that simply weren’t feasible before

Small Modular Reactor diagram

Still, early development costs are estimated to be higher than alternatives like inexpensive natural gas plants, with the NuScale SMR design quoted to cost $50/MW installed. This higher initial cost creates a “first-of-a-kind” dilemma, with early adopters asked to bear a higher cost burden in the learning stage. To overcome this issue quickly, further government sponsorship may be needed — it’s our view that adoption may remain limited without partnerships in the form of loan guarantees or cost matching programs to allow private firms to invest in this cutting-edge technology.

As for safety, one of the major flaws with past reactor designs is the requirement to have access to external power for operating safety systems like valves and cooling pumps. Many past nuclear plant designs also relied more heavily on human intervention, and thus subject to human error. SMR technology addresses both problems by moving to passive safety systems wherein a loss of external electrical power results in automated shutdown and self-circulating cooling to remove decay heat safely and without incident.

Indeed, overcoming public safety concerns has been a major issue for the nuclear industry since the accidents at Fukushima and Three Mile Island. What the public doesn’t fully understand is that neither of these accidents resulted in any significant radiation-related deaths, a fact that some may find surprising.

Let us repeat that: no direct radiation deaths were documented at Fukushima or Three Mile Island.

You might also be wondering ‘what about Chernobyl?’ – it was, after all, by far the worst nuclear power accident of all time and the subject of a fascinating HBO documentary. It resulted in 31 deaths directly related to radiation poisoning.

To provide some additional context to these figures – BP, a multinational oil company and self-proclaimed green energy champion, was responsible for the deaths of 26 people and injuries to hundreds of others — in a series of only two major catastrophes at the Texas City Refinery (2005) and the Deepwater Horizon Rig (2010) alone. Only one of those events received its own drama tribute film, but the result was no less impactful to those involved.

Oil rig on fire

The point of the comparison is that the public has a predisposition to be wary of the nuclear industry because it is often conflated (unfairly) with nuclear warfare – but the truth is that this is an unsound comparison, and the figures bear this out.

Perspective is important because when it comes to health, nuclear has historically produced the very best records of any energy source, clean or otherwise. 

Nuclear power as a clean alternative

So, what are we waiting for? Did you realize the future is now and that it could be Nuclear that ushers in the Green Energy Era?

Andrew Schaper is a professional engineer and principal of Schaper Energy Consulting.  His practice focuses on advisory in oil and gas, sustainable energy and carbon strategies.

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