Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMR) have the potential to transform the nuclear energy industry in the US and across the world. SMR technology rejects the conventional wisdom of economies of scale in favor of a design and manufacturing environment that standardizes component production. These components are fabricated and assembled in factories to make reactor modules which can take advantage of process efficiency.
Small reactors are not a new idea. During the first decade of nuclear energy production, 14 reactors were built with a generating capacity of less than 100 MWe (megawatt electric). The move to larger reactors began shortly after that, however, as builders began to realize they could double a plant’s power output with less than double the building supplies. This realization quickly gained momentum. Less than 15 years after the first small nuclear reactor began producing electricity, plants with outputs of 800, 900, and 1,000 MWe were coming online.
According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), a 1,000 MWe nuclear reactor produces enough energy to power nearly 750,000 homes. Out of the 99 nuclear reactors currently operating in the United States, 88 have capacities of 800 MWe or more. The largest reactor in operation in the US is the 1,500 MWe Grand Gulf reactor in Mississippi. In contrast, SMRs have a generating capacity of less than 300 MWe. The smaller, modular nature of this technology offers potential solutions to many issues that have plagued larger nuclear facilities. SMRs provide the same carbon-free, efficient, and reliable electricity production as larger reactors, but require less up-front capital investment, offer more advanced safety features, and are more easily adapted to fit electricity customers’ needs.
Modern SMRs differ from early small reactor designs. They utilize advanced reactor technology and rely on the modular nature of the design to provide advantages over typical large nuclear reactors, where the majority of fabrication occurs on-site. These designs began to gain traction in the early 2000’s thanks to funding initiatives from the Department of Energy. Private funding has also played an important role in SMR development, but federal support remains a major boon for SMR projects.
As with any new technology that must comply with regulatory standards, SMR technology faces a number of barriers to its adoption. This paper attempts to analyze many of the significant barriers impeding SMR technology in the US with a focus on the impact of regulation. We first give an overview of the benefits and potential of SMR technology, then we provide a discussion of barriers to adopting SMR technology in the energy industry and give policy recommendations to help reduce those barriers.