By Will Ferguson

Near the banks of the Clinch River in eastern Tennessee, a team of engineers will begin a dig this month that they hope will lead to a new energy future.

They’ll be drilling core samples, documenting geologic, hydrologic, and seismic conditions—the initial step in plans to site the world’s first commercial small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) here…

…Proponents believe a fleet of bite-size reactors might have a better chance of getting built than the typical behemoth. Although existing nuclear reactors (thanks to their cheap fuel) currently provide electricity at lower cost than coal or natural gas plants, building a brand new big nuclear plant is costly.

Tom Flaherty, a senior energy consultant for the global management firm Booz & Company, pointed out that nuclear energy investments often fail to reach fruition. Proposals for 30 new reactors have been advanced by U.S. energy utilities in recent years; more than half of these have been withdrawn to date.  A big plant carries another big financial risk; what if there’s not enough demand for all that power?

“In today’s market, the financial risk of unused capacity means nuclear energy is simply not an option unless you are a very large company,” said Flaherty.

Bob Rosner, a nuclear energy expert at the University of Chicago, agreed that the price of a new nuclear plant—which can be around $20 billion—is one that only a handful of energy companies can currently afford. (See related story: “New Nuclear Energy Grapples With Costs.”)

“Is a company going to bet a third of its market capitalization on a risky project?” Rosner asked. “The answer is no, they aren’t going to do it.” SMRs, however, could be made in factories at the relatively inexpensive cost of $1-2 billion, Rosner said. They could then be shipped via rail to sites around the United States and the world, where they would be ready to “plug and play” upon arrival…

Continue Reading at National Geographic…

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