Suggested Change to Missouri’s Nuclear Construction Bill
A new bill in the Missouri Legislature proposes easing regulations on nuclear and renewable power construction. House Bill 261 would allow utilities to charge ratepayers for the construction of nuclear and renewable power plants before they’re operational. However, this would only apply to plants with the capacity to generate more than 200 megawatts of electricity per year.
This exemption would favor large, traditional nuclear power plants at the expense of cutting-edge nuclear energy technology—small modular reactors (SMRs). Putting aside the merits of the current monopoly structure—customers in other states benefit from competitive electricity markets—does it even make sense for a bill to promote traditional nuclear over SMRs?
Let’s put this in perspective. Few large, traditional nuclear power plants have been built nationwide in the past few decades. In recent years, multi-billion dollar cost-overrun debacles for new traditional nuclear plants in South Carolina and Georgia have put a damper on constructing new large nuclear plants. So what’s so special about SMRs?
SMRs are much smaller than traditional nuclear power plants (generating fewer than 200 megawatts of electricity per year) and are also cheaper to construct on a per-megawatt basis than traditional nuclear plants. NuScale Power, which is on track to receive the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s first construction approval of an SMR this August, expects its SMR to produce electricity for $65 per megawatt-hour. That price is competitive with electricity from natural gas plants, which are also “baseload” power providers. (Baseload power is reliable, around-the-clock power, as opposed to the intermittent power provided by solar and wind.)
SMRs are also safer than traditional nuclear plants. The traditional way of generating nuclear power is already the safest form of electricity production available, even when considering disasters like Chernobyl or Fukushima, but SMRs come with enhanced safety features. For instance, traditional nuclear power plants cool their reactors by circulating water via electricity, meaning that in the event of a natural disaster that removes all possibility of power (such as what happened in Fukushima in 2011), the reactor could malfunction. SMRs use natural circulation rather than power to cool the reactor, meaning that a disaster like Fukushima is even less likely to happen with SMRs, and it is already extraordinarily unlikely.
Their smaller size also means that SMRs may be deployed in places where it wouldn’t make sense to build an enormous, traditional nuclear power plant, such as in remote towns or industrial sites. SMRs can operate individually as well as being grouped together, again in contrast to traditional nuclear plants. This allows for more flexible operation and even expansion if population or industry requires it.
SMRs are nearing full approval by federal regulators and are already being built in several countries. Putting aside the concerns about the monopoly powers Missouri utilities currently have (which are not insignificant), wouldn’t Missouri be better off focusing on the future of nuclear energy technology rather than the past?