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US should incentivize the development of small modular reactors: Moniz

The US government should incentivize small modular reactor development to evaluate the commercial potential of those technologies in light of the difficulties facing utilities attempting to build larger power reactors, former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said Wednesday.

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"We've got to have the initiatives to answer the question of what it would take for the small modular reactor approach to demonstrate its cost proposition," Moniz said at a Bipartisan Policy Center event in Washington.

Such initiatives could be either direct financial incentives or indirect incentives such as power purchase agreements, he said.



The scale of current nuclear reactor projects represents a limiting factor for utilities, he noted.

"The issue of very large scale capital investments is very tough for most American utilities to manage," Moniz said. "Even if we take the original cost projection for plants in the Southeast -- $15 billion-$16 billion for a couple of gigawatts -- that's an awful lot of capital to be putting forward for the balance sheet of American utilities."

Former US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington
Former US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, right, at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington

The Vogtle nuclear plant expansion project in Waynesboro, Georgia, has seen its costs soar from an initial estimate of $14 billion to more than $20 billion, and is facing delays of at least two years from its original schedule.

Meanwhile, South Carolina Electric & Gas abandoned its partially built Summer nuclear plant expansion in July only to withdraw its petition to abandon the project after protests from local lawmakers. The Summer project has also seen its costs soar to more than $20 billion and face delays of a similar magnitude.

"If you look at the capacity factor-weighted capital cost of renewables, it's not very different from nuclear power," Moniz said. He noted, however, that utilities "will not be required to buy solar farms in units of 1,400 MW."

SMRs with a capacity of 50 to 100 MW each may be a game-changer because they would open up financial and engineering options not available to megaprojects, Moniz said.

"We are already in a small modular reactor business; it's called the nuclear navy. And I think we should [pursue] that for the commercial sector as well," he said.

--Yi-Jeng Huang, yi.jeng.huang@spglobal.com

--Edited by Annie Siebert, ann.siebert@spglobal.com