Small Nuclear Reactors May Actually Produce 30 Times More Nuclear Waste, New Study Says

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Small modular reactors (SMRs) have been claimed to be the future of nuclear energy. However, they can produce up to 30 times more radioactive waste than typical nuclear power plants, a new study by Stanford University states.

“Our results show that most small modular reactor designs will actually increase the volume of nuclear waste in need of management and disposal, by factors of 2 to 30 for the reactors in our case study,” said study lead author Lindsay Krall, a former MacArthur Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), in a press release. “These findings stand in sharp contrast to the cost and waste reduction benefits that advocates have claimed for advanced nuclear technologies.”

Small modular reactors have a small size which means they can be prefabricated in factories and shipped for installation, making them cheaper and easier to build than the nuclear power plants of today.

A team of researchers from Stanford University and the University of British Columbia analyzed the nuclear waste streams from by three different types of small modular reactors Toshiba, NuScale, and Terrestrial Energy.

Due to their smaller size, the study discovered that small modular reactors would face higher neutron leakage than regular reactors.

“The more neutrons that are leaked, the greater the amount of radioactivity created by the activation process of neutrons,” study co-author Rodney Ewing, the Frank Stanton Professor in Nuclear Security at Stanford and co-director of CISAC, said. “We found that small modular reactors will generate at least nine times more neutron-activated steel than conventional power plants. These radioactive materials have to be carefully managed prior to disposal, which will be expensive.”

“Some small modular reactor designs call for chemically exotic fuels and coolants that can produce difficult-to-manage wastes for disposal,” said co-author Allison Macfarlane, professor and director of the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. “Those exotic fuels and coolants may require costly chemical treatment prior to disposal.”

To conclude, the researchers stated that small modular designs are inferior to conventional reactors in terms of radioactive waste generations, management needs, and disposal alternatives.

Commercial nuclear power reactors in the United States alone have produced around 88,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel today. They are accumulated at a rate of roughly 2,000 metric tons per year, which further highlights the importance of active research before unique technologies are introduced.

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