WASHINGTON – Duke Energy could soon throw away hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars by investing in the emerging nuclear energy technology known as small modular reactors, or SMRs, ignoring cleaner and safer renewable power choices.
Duke is in talks with several nuclear energy companies, including NuScale Power, to purchase SMRs, company CEO Lynn Good told Bloomberg News in an interview last week. The reason for the rush toward more nuclear power is to help the utility achieve its net-zero emissions goal by 2050, according to Good.
But the nuclear power industry is a notorious money pit, wasting billions of private and taxpayer dollars to research and develop technology that never gets off the ground. As with larger nuclear plants, attempts to deploy modular nuclear units globally have resulted in massive cost overruns.
Duke’s folly in pursuing a fleet of SMRs is all but certain to cost far more than original estimates, so the monopoly utility’s captive ratepayers will likely be forced to cover the increased costs through higher monthly bills.
“Instead of investing in clean, cheap, safe and abundant sources of energy, Duke plans to pour enormous sums of money into extremely expensive, potentially dangerous nuclear plants that don’t even exist,” said EWG President Ken Cook.
“It seems Duke’s long history of throwing good money after bad on uneconomical infrastructure continues unabated, and its ratepayers, not investors, will be on the hook when the colossal bill comes due,” Cook said.
A tally by EWG of Duke’s botched or aborted projects since 2013 found the company has wasted more than $11 billion, including billions on three failed nuclear plants. The utility sought and received approval from regulators to pass along the costs of those financial disasters to ratepayers by hiking their monthly bills.
There are no SMRs operating today in the U.S. Despite a decade-long effort to commercialize NuScale’s SMR units, beginning in the early 2010s, costs have escalated, and a planned pilot has been delayed to the end of the decade.
Proponents of SMRs claim the reactors will be far less expensive and much safer to manufacture and operate than larger and older nuclear power plants.
Those rosy predictions are unlikely to come true, as just a glance at existing SMR projects can attest. They have cost billions for no benefit.
Collaborating with the Utah Associated Municipal Power System, or UAMPS, NuScale plans to build an SMR at a Department of Energy site in Idaho. In 2015 the company said the entire capital cost would be $3 billion, which has now more than doubled to $6.1 billion, even before construction begins. In fact, UAMPS' costs projection for NuScale’s units in 2020 was double that of NuScale’s.
A study by the Institute for Energy Economic and Financial Analysis, or IEEFA, released in February panned the NuScale project, arguing the final price tag will be far higher than the company estimates. It will leave the communities that plan to draw electricity from the SMR on the hook for cost overruns that could run into the billions of dollars.
“Too late, too expensive, too risky and too uncertain. That, in a nutshell, describes NuScale’s planned small modular reactor (SMR) project, which has been in development since 2001 and will not begin commercial operations before 2029, if ever,” the IEEFA said.
The study also criticized NuScale’s project for impeding efforts to build clean, safe, far cheaper and ample net-zero emissions alternatives, such as solar and wind.
In 2021, EWG commissioned a paper by two leading energy experts that documented similar flaws in NuScale’s planned SMR in Idaho, including the enormous cost of building and operating the facility, safety concerns and the stark reality that SMRs will not be in operation until at least 2030 or beyond. That’s too far in the future to have any real impact on mitigating the worst effects of climate crisis, which is happening now.
“The climate problem is urgent. The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and other international bodies have warned that to stop irreversible damage from climate change, we need to reduce emissions drastically within the next decade. The SMR contribution in the next decade will be essentially zero,” said the experts, Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D., and M.V. Ramana, Ph.D.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.