Nuclear is reliable, works 24/7, and generates a lot of power, all for essentially zero carbon.1 That comes at a price, though. Nuclear plants are really expensive, legislatively challenging, difficult to scale, and have a hotly debated reputation. But what if there was a way to build smaller, cheaper, and safer nuclear facilities sized for individual businesses or small communities? It might sound like an Atomic Age dream, but it’s already here. Is shrinking and modularizing nuclear facilities the path towards a nuclear future? And is nuclear really as bad as many of us think it is?

“Just go nuclear” is a common refrain in the comments sections of my videos when I discuss clean energy production. Nuclear power has a lot to offer, both as a part of our energy mix as we wait for renewables to fill in the gaps left by fossil fuels, and as a partner with renewables in general.2 One major problem that continues to drag this 70-year-old technology down, though, is the size and complexity of nuclear power plants. And that’s not even getting into the “big three” hurdles associated with nuclear: its hazards, the waste it produces, and its cost.

The U.S.-based company Last Energy is attempting to address these issues, but not by reinventing the wheel, so to speak. They’re taking well tested technology and shrinking it down into modular nuclear power plants known as Small Modular Reactors (or SMRs). These occupy only half an acre of land, but they’re capable of producing 20 megawatts of electricity.3 They fit neatly within the dimensions of the coal power plants they can replace, all while being much, much more compact than traditional nuclear power plants.4 They’re also strong enough to power individual, energy-intensive sites like factories and data centers.3 But if they’re not reinventing the wheel and bringing some new technology to the mix, how does making nuclear power plants smaller make them better?

To understand that, we have to go back to those “big three” obstacles to adopting nuclear power. We can’t really disentangle small modular reactors without it.

Isn’t Nuclear Dangerous?

Let’s start by addressing the dangers associated with nuclear energy. Wouldn’t building a bunch of SMRs increase the chance of catastrophe?

Well, believe it or not, nuclear power is actually one of the least deadly forms of energy on the planet. It sits right between solar and wind5 and way below fossil fuels, which cause an estimated 3.6 million deaths a year.6 To put this into perspective, Our World In Data looked at deaths from pollution and accidents related to power generation. Its 2020 report on the safety of energy sources found that the death rate of wind is 0.04 per TWh of electricity. For solar, it’s 0.02. And nuclear energy? Again sandwiched right between the two with a death rate of 0.03 per TWh. Meanwhile, coal topped the charts at 32.72 deaths per terawatt-hour.7 Keep in mind that the entire planet used an estimated 22,848 TWh in 2019.8 That comes out to a lot of human suffering caused by fossil fuels. Consider that fossil fuel energy sources require mines and drilling operations, which often account for many injuries and fatalities, especially across a global market.

That of course does not mean that the suffering caused by nuclear meltdowns is any less significant. While the epidemiology on these cases is still hotly debated, it’s generally agreed that 30 to 60 people died as a direct result of Chernobyl, the worst of history’s three major nuclear disasters (the others being Fukushima and Three-Mile Island).9 It was no doubt a tragedy that caused incredible hardship, considering these losses alongside the injuries, evacuations, and cancer experienced in the aftermath.

However, looking at the long view, we’ve had nuclear plants since the 50s. There are 413 active nuclear power plants in the world today, but there have been only three serious disasters in total.1011
It’s also worth noting that Chernobyl was an RBMK reactor developed by the Soviet Union, which is very different from the pressurized-water reactors (or PWRs) that make up the vast majority of reactors around the world today. The specifics of these reactors could be their own video, but suffice to say RBMKs had a number of design flaws that made them a lot less safe than PWRs.12 13 In a nutshell, a PWR is just a much better design with decades of safe operation.

How does Last Energy’s small modular reactor deal with the potential dangers of nuclear energy? Their reactors are also PWRs, with the (now common) additional safety feature of an underground site. If a meltdown happens, the risk of harmful particles escaping into the air is greatly reduced.14 Plus, smaller reactors don’t run as hot, so they’re less likely to melt down. A smaller reactor will also have fewer moving parts, thus fewer potential failure points.14 15

While the risk of airborne radioactive particle releases is lower, the underground site must be carefully chosen to avoid potential contamination of groundwater, both during normal operation and during flooding, where rainwater could be contaminated before running off into the watershed.

So, when you take into account the number of disasters relative to the number of power plants, technological advances, and new safety procedures, the dangers of nuclear energy even in the event of a meltdown are far less of an issue than before.

What about Nuclear Waste?

But what about nuclear waste and how Last Energy is planning to handle that?

The vast majority of reactors here in the U.S. use a “once through” nuclear fuel cycle. To keep the explanation simple, the uranium ore is mined, enriched into the right kind of uranium, turned into fuel pellets, and used in a reactor. Then those spent pellets become radioactive waste that needs to be stored somewhere.16 And yes, I was just as disappointed as you are to learn that radioactive waste is just li’l gray pellets and not glowing green ninja turtle ooze.

It’s important to note that only 3% of that waste is the scary stuff that will be harmful for thousands of years to come.17 We don’t make very much of it either — just around half an Olympic swimming pool per year — which sounds like a lot, but really isn’t when you consider just how much carbon-free energy we’re getting in the deal.18 You can also rest a little easier knowing there are zero recorded deaths attributed to nuclear waste leakage.19

How do we safely store it, though? The most common method, at least here in the United States, is called “dry casking.” First, all those rod assemblies take a refreshing dip at the bottom of a spent fuel pool. Water is of course great at cooling things off, but it’s also remarkably good at dampening radiation.20 Once everything is nice and inert, usually in a few years’ time, the rods are then placed in stainless-steel canisters, which are welded shut. Boom, there’s your dry cask.21 The casks are only rated to last about 40 years, but the waste can be re-homed to a new cask, or moved to a more permanent storage facility, the most promising of which being Deep Geological Disposal (DGD) Facilities.21 These do what exactly they say on the tin: We place the casks deep underground in geologically stable regions and entomb them under tons of concrete and earth.22 There’s just one not-so-little thing: there aren’t any long-term storage facilities currently operational, which means most nuclear facilities have to keep those casks on site, at least for now.23 Good news though, Finland is set to open the first DGD facility later this year, so help is coming.24

Still, this is not the kind of problem you can ignore, especially if nuclear power reaches the popularity some want it to. With hundreds of facilities storing literal tons of this harmful stuff for — no joke — up to 24,000 years,25 there’s a lot of possible points of failure. Solutions like dry casking and deep geological storage might be good enough for now,26 but are they 24,000-year proof solutions? It’s difficult to say.

What’s Last Energy doing to mitigate the issue of nuclear waste? Their power plants can last about 40 years, but about every six years they’ll swap the old reactor for a new one — a lot like replacing a battery, just, y’know, nuclear-sized.27 Here’s the neat part: the old reactor continues to house all the spent fuel inside. After all, it was safe when we were smashing atoms to create electricity. It’ll be even safer now that the fuel is spent. Then Last Energy can just haul the whole reactor-slash-waste-cask off with minimal danger or chance of spillage.28 But … we could also look at recycling that waste into more energy. How? A closed fuel cycle.

Because more than 90% of the potential energy remains in spent nuclear fuel, even after five years of operation in a reactor,29 spent waste could actually be reused as a nuclear fuel. Better yet, every time that waste goes through the fuel cycle, the halflife of the radioactive elements are reduced down to hundreds of years, which is obviously a much more manageable timeframe than 24,000 years.30 The United States currently does not recycle its nuclear waste, though other countries do.

Japan has been leading the R&D charge in recycling this waste. The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan argues that on top of making the waste safer, its closed fuel cycle adds another layer of energy security, reduces dependence on foreign imports of uranium, and allows for getting the most energy out of the uranium already purchased.31 What’s not to like? Last Energy isn’t promising this, but it’s theoretically an option.

Isn’t Nuclear expensive?

Now that we’ve established that nuclear energy is much safer than you might have thought, here comes the next big question: The same probably goes for the high costs, right? As much as the “just go nuclear” crowd likes to point out its huge benefits, the cost of nuclear power is one of the biggest limiting factors. It’s just more expensive. Nuclear power plants are indeed really expensive in terms of both “capital” costs and operating costs. Capital refers to components of the initial price tag: stuff like site preparation, engineering, manufacturing, construction, commissioning, permitting, financing … you get the idea. Altogether, initial costs for your average 110 MW plant are about $6-10 billion. Ouch.32 These costs are a lot higher than other forms of energy production because nuclear plants are both very complex and naturally held to extremely high safety and design standards. Almost every part of the process from beginning to end requires extensive work at the hands of multiple highly qualified experts. And it’s a long process too, with the average construction time for even the most modern plants taking about 9.2 years to complete.33 That can leave a lot of room for potential design changes, tech upgrades, and a variety of lawsuits to crop up, all of which compound the existing time and money issues.34

Meanwhile, the operations tend to be costly, too. Nuclear fuel isn’t cheap, and neither is the professional labor it takes to run a nuclear power plant. But extra expenses come from standardization, or more accurately, the lack of it. Unlike oil, gas, or other industries, nuclear energy never established a standardized set of tools.32 This adds to the cost because you can’t just pop down to the nuclear energy store and grab a universal plutonium rod or pipe fitting. Most nuclear power plants are bespoke.
In contrast, France runs dozens of very similar, standardized nuclear power plants. Besides reducing overall costs, it provides a mechanism for additional safety. If something begins to fail at one power plant, all of the others can be quickly checked and repaired. Based on this model, a company that can provide a standardized nuclear power plant can be much safer and less expensive, as they share standardized parts.35

And if you thought nuclear was expensive on first blush, just wait, there’s more. The measure known as levelized cost of energy, or LCOE, represents the lifetime cost divided by energy production, which makes it easier to fairly compare technologies. LCOE accounts for not just the large installation fees that projects face, but also how much bang you’re getting for your buck stretched out over the entire span of the project.36

According to the 2022 annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR), solar has an LCOE of $36 per MWh, wind clocks in at $38 per MWh, and coal costs $108 per MWh. Not good for coal (one of the many reasons it’s dying off). But nuclear power costs around $167 per MWh, making this the most expensive form of the energy production amongst methods surveyed, and the only one to actually go up in price during the study period (2009-2021).37 Yikes.

Just based on economies of scale and how difficult it is to get a plant approved, you’d think the bigger plants would be more cost effective, but here more than anywhere else, Last Energy’s strategy of miniaturization and standardization pays off. With their modular, factory line, plug n’ play approach, Last Energy can deploy their SMRs blindingly fast, in less than two years.3 And because they are small and modular, these reactors actually scale quite well: you can always upgrade simply by adding another module. Here’s their CEO, Brett Kugelmass, who I interviewed for my Still TBD podcast.

“…since we’re delivering literally the exact same thing every single time. We don’t have to have run through a $20 or $30 million exercise for each individual plant. We can hit the copy and paste button based on the application we submitted last time.” – Bret Kugelmass

They’re fast and easy to construct, but how much will one of these reactors actually run you? Around $123 million.38 (Correction: after publishing Last Energy has stated it’s under $100 million.) It’s also way cheaper than a standard-sized, beefy-boy nuclear plant with its, again, minimum $6 billion dollar price tag and almost decade-long construction time. If something does need to be repaired, that’s where the benefits of standardization come in again. No more time-consuming custom designing, followed by review boards, followed by machining, followed by testing and more machining…you get the picture. I think Last Energy CEO Brett Kugelmass put it best when said this:

“We are innovative at how uninnovative we are. We’re just not tackling a physics challenge. Instead, we’re tackling a supply chain procurement and economic challenge.” — Bret Kugelmass

Now, this is the part of the video where I’d normally say something along the lines of “Gee, this tech is cool, let’s hope it works and hits the market soon,” but these plants are already out there. Poland, the UK, and others have already purchased reactors from Last Energy1 and more are on the way.

“This is a big week. You’re catching me at the end of the greatest week of my life… This week. We sold over 30 power plants…” – Bret Kugelmass

Go ahead fill in your Undecided bingo card free space, because here, as always, there’s no one solution to rule them all. No silver bullet. There’s no “just go nuclear” or “just go solar” to this debate. It’s going to take a mix of solutions. The danger nuclear energy poses to people and the environment pales in comparison to harm caused by fossil fuels. At the same time, nuclear waste is a real concern that doesn’t have a clear, permanent solution at the moment. And as good as the death rates look for nuclear compared to other forms of energy production, that doesn’t tell the whole story about the impacts on a population affected by a nuclear disaster. Ultimately, nuclear may not be the solution, but it’s a solution. If we can get nuclear’s high price tag under control, reduce its footprint, and speed up its deployment as Last Energy is trying to do, then it could be an essential part of the green energy mix going forward. We just don’t have the time or the luxury to let the perfect be the enemy of the good … and nuclear energy, especially in this small modular reactor form, looks really good.

  1. DOE – Nuclear Power is the Most Reliable Energy Source and It’s Not Even Close ↩︎
  2. IEA Report – Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System ↩︎
  3. Last Energy -Techology ↩︎
  4. World Nuclear Association – Small Nuclear Power Reactors ↩︎
  5. What are the safest and cleanest sources of energy? ↩︎
  6. Data Review: How many people die from air pollution? ↩︎
  7. Our World in Data – What are the safest and cleanest sources of energy? ↩︎
  8. Electricity consumption ↩︎
  9. Chernobyl Accident 1986 ↩︎
  10. Wikipedia – List of Commercial Nuclear Reactors ↩︎
  11. World Nuclear Association – What are the effects of nuclear accidents? ↩︎
  12. Wikipedia – Pressurized Water Reactor ↩︎
  13. Wikipedia – RBMK ↩︎
  14. BBC – The countries building miniature nuclear reactors ↩︎
  15. WNA – Small Nuclear Power Reactors ↩︎
  16. International Atomic Energy Agency – Nuclear Fuel Cycle ↩︎
  17. Wikipedia – Radioactive Waste ↩︎
  18. 5 Fast Facts about Spent Nuclear Fuel ↩︎
  19. How to Breakdown the Pros and Cons of Nuclear Energy ↩︎
  20. WNA – Nuclear Fuel Cycle Overview ↩︎
  21. As nuclear waste piles up, scientists seek the best long-term storage solutions ↩︎
  22. WNA – Storage and Disposal of Radioactive Waste ↩︎
  23. Wiki – Dry Cask Storage ↩︎
  24. Finland is set to open the world’s first permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste. How did it succeed when other countries stumbled? ↩︎
  25. USNRC – Backgrounder on Radioactive Waste ↩︎
  26. World Nuclear Association – Storage and Disposal of Radioactive Waste ↩︎
  27. Washington Post – See How This Company Plans to Transform Nuclear Power ↩︎
  28. Forbes – Inside The Audacious Plan To Use 10,000 Nuclear Microreactors To Wean The World Off Coal ↩︎
  29. 5 Fast Facts about Spent Nuclear Fuel ↩︎
  30. WNA – Radioactive Waste Management ↩︎
  31. FEPC – Japan’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle ↩︎
  32. Why America abandoned nuclear power ↩︎
  33. World Nuclear Industry Status Report – Table 03 – Duration from Construction Start to Grid Connection 2012–2021 ↩︎
  34. Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: Why nuclear power plants cost so much—and what can be done about it ↩︎
  35. “Nuclear Power in France” ↩︎
  36. Corporate Finance Institute – Levelized Cost of Energy ↩︎
  37. The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2022 ↩︎
  38. Datacenter Dynamics – Last Energy claims to have sold 24 nuclear reactors in the UK for £2.4 billion ↩︎

How Nuclear Fusion Can Benefit Us … TODAY!

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