A Free-Market Energy Blog

New Nuclear: Three Projects, Three Problems

By Kennedy Maize -- March 9, 2023

“NuScale’s estimated ‘levelized cost of energy’ (LCOE) … jumped by one-half last December (to $89/MWh from $58/WMh). The total cost for the project is estimated at a bit over $9 billion, but $1.4 billion is offset by DOE funding, which could increase in the future.”

More news, more problems regarding the live projects being counted on as the beginning of a new era of nuclear power. Back in the 1950s/1960s, the expectation was that learning-by-doing and scale economies would bring parity with fossil-fuel plants. Today, that same goal seems distant.


NuScale Power’s small modular reactor project, designed to provide electricity to Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, a joint action agency serving 50 municipal utilities in Utah, Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming, has survived another near-death experience. Facing a vote by the participants in its project for six light-water pressurized reactors, totaling 462-MW on the grounds of the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls. Twenty-six of the 27 utility participants agreed to continue with the “Carbon Free Power Project.”

The vote came in the face of a steep increase in NuScale’s estimated “levelized cost of energy” (LCOE), which jumped by one-half last December (to $89/MWh from $58/WMh). The total cost for the project is estimated at a bit over $9 billion, but $1.4 billion is offset by DOE funding, which could increase in the future.

The December hike triggered a vote on whether to continue the project. Of the 27 municipalities participating in the plan, Morgan City, Utah, withdrew its 1.398 MW participation; Parowan City, Utah, reduced its commitment from 3 MW to 2 MW; and Los Alamos increased its share from 2.1 MW to 8.6 MW. That left the total commitment so far about 120 MW, far short of what makes the project economically viable. The current in-service estimate is 2030.

The initial project was a 12-reactor, 720-MW station at a cost of $4 billion, in service in 2026. The cost estimate quickly rose to $6 billion, original participants started dropping out, and NuScale and its contractor Fluor Corp. reworked the reactor design and scaled back the project to 462 MW. Are more cost escalations ahead? With rising interest rates and the experience of Plant Vogtle #3 and #4, more surprises can be expected–and requests for more DOE help.

X-energy and DOW

X-energy and DOW have switched the planned location for their four-unit, 320-MW high temperature gas cooled reactor (HTGR) using TRISO billiard-ball-size fuel “pebbles”, from Washington state to an unspecified site on the Gulf Coast, close to a Dow chemical industry facilities.

X-energy of Rockville, Md., is a startup specialist in HTGR technology. DOW, based in Midland, Mich., is a venerable chemical company, founded in 1897. Their planned $2.2 billion nuclear project has $1.2 billion in Department of Energy funding for the power plant and a fuel fabrication plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The target is for 2028.

HTGR is an elegant conceptual approach to nuclear, with a mixed practical record. It uses inert helium gas as a coolant, so the plants require water for only boiler feed and makeup. They produce high steam temperatures. The uranium fuel and the graphite moderator are incapsulated in a ceramic material, making them extraordinarily strong. Their advocates bill them as “walk away safe” in a nuclear accident.

The first U.S. HGTR was Peach Bottom on the Susquehanna River outside of Philadelphia. It ran well from 1967 to 1974. It used a solid, “prismatic” fuel combining uranium and thorium with the graphite moderator. The 40-MWe plant produced steam at 1,000 F and 1,450 psig. with a thermal efficiency of 37% and 88% power availability. A small, 13-MW HTGR operated in Julich, Germany, known as AVR, connected to the grid in 1967 and ran until 1988, the first to use the spherical, “pebble-bed” TRISO fuel.

Scaleup of HTGRs has been a problem. In the U.S., Public Service of Colorado built a 330-MW General Atomics reactor. The plant operated fitfully from 1979 to 1989, beset by plumbing problems. It shut at a point where the problems appeared solved, but the economics had changed. Germany scaled up the AVR with the 300-MW pebble-bed THTR, connected to the grid in 1985 and closed in 1989, a victim of financial and political woes, including the nuclear skepticism in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Scaleup problems may be irrelevant, as HTGRs have operated successfully at small sizes.

Virginia’s SMR Plan

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s SMR plan hits a roadblock, NBC television station WCBY-TV reports. The Republican governor launched legislation for an SMR for southwestern Virginia, the heart of the state’s struggling coal industry. The Bristol, Va., TV station is in the middle of the coal-rich region. The Washington Post reported, “Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) energy plan calls for Southwest Virginia to build the nation’s first commercial small reactor. The governor was in Wise County in October promoting the plan at an abandoned mine site. Virginia is among at least eight states pursuing a small reactor.”

Youngkin’s vision crashed in the legislature, which ended its session last week without authorizing SMR provisions. “The actual SMR bill itself, did not get out of conference committee,” Republican Del. Israel O’Quinn told WCBY. “Just couldn’t get an agreement on exactly how to get that out of there.”

Last Word: Vaclav Smil

The familiar process of overoptimism and creeping reality brings to mind the wisdom of Vaclav Smil, who wrote in his most recent book, Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure:

In light of the past experience with nuclear promises, the only sensible attitude is to wait and see how many of these announced plans will, even with the added incentive of accelerated decarbonization, become actual working prototypes, and then how many of those will make the second cut to lay the foundations of future commercial opportunities. In any case, no nation has announced any specific, detailed, and binding recommitment to what would have to be a multidecadal program of reactor construction.


Ken Maize is Proprietor, The Quad Report: Energy Policy and Politics at Sawmill Creek Communications in Knoxville, Maryland. Before then, he was executive editor of POWER magazine. He edited and wrote for Electricity Daily for 20 years, before which he held the same position for Energy Daily.

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