Speaking of “A Shock”

… is anyone actually surprised by this? Disappointed, sure – but surprised?


Nov 8 (Reuters) – (This Nov. 8 story has been corrected to show that the Energy Department provided $600 million to NuScale and others to commercialize small reactor technology, not $600 million provided to NuScale, in paragraph 2)

NuScale Power (SMR.N) said on Wednesday it has agreed with a power group in Utah to terminate the company’s small modular reactor project, dealing a blow to U.S. ambitions for a wave of nuclear energy to fight climate change and sending NuScale’s shares down 20%.

I went around on the internet looking for pictures of what NuScale’s reactor looks like at this time in its construction but it appears that it never got past the “here are some cool looking powerpoint slides” stage. I have probably just enraged someone by saying that, but I’m going to stick with that position unless I get some education otherwise. As usual for these things, it gets worse:

It seems as though NuScale spent that money building a cool-ass operations center that simulates a runnable reactor if there were such a thing. And some small scale demos that don’t do anything remotely like producing energy – let me guess, “proof of concept art.”

The problem is that if humans are going to overcome their energy addiction to oil, working small reactors were needed about 20 years ago. Now, it’s too late anyway. The Vogtle reactor in Georgia came online this year after 14 years under construction, and a cost overrun factor of about 3. NuScale basically burned through their money and made some cool demo-ware and more powerpoints and never even got to the stage where they fleeced taxpayers for $30 billion, or so.

I’m starting to feel like a conspiracist but it seems to me like the energy companies are desperate to hang onto “their” customer base, so they aren’t going to look kindly on solutions that peel customers off the grid toward energy independence. Of course, energy independence is what humanity needs, if they intend to survive what they have done to the planetary ecosystem. Meanwhile, the climate news is all tracking pretty much straight toward disaster.

In some forums we are reminded that we must vote for Joe Biden again, because the alternative is always worse. Never mind that he’s a warmonger, who supported US illegal wars in Syria and Iraq [which, trust me, had nothing to do with keeping the price of oil down], and unequivocally supports Israel regardless of what war crimes they commit – he also promised to stop issuing fossil fuel leases and apparently never even seriously contemplated trying to meet that promise. It was just campaign lies. Then, he waffled about how much a green new deal would be good if it was tied to his other programs, and then cut back substantially on the green provisions – which still made it the “greenest” thing a president has ever done, but it’s not enough. At this point in the game, pretty much nothing except full-on emergency braking is “enough” and even that would just take the edge off the disaster for a few thousand years. What really worries me is the way the “red wave” did not materialize in the 2022 midterms. Was it the republicans’ stupidity on abortion (sure, that had something to do with it) or was it because Biden got oil prices down, which drove down consumer costs and made inflation look less bad? [nyt]

WASHINGTON — As President Biden was planning a politically risky trip to Saudi Arabia this summer, his top aides thought they had struck a secret deal to boost oil production through the end of the year — an arrangement that could have helped justify breaking a campaign pledge to shun the kingdom and its crown prince.

It didn’t work out that way.

Mr. Biden went through with the trip. But earlier this month, Saudi Arabia and Russia steered a group of oil-producing countries in voting to slash oil production by two million barrels per day, the opposite of the outcome the administration thought it had secured as the Democratic Party struggles to deal with inflation and high gas prices heading into the November elections.

Biden doesn’t care. He’ll be safely inhumed before the climate disaster begins to really crush first world economies. In the meantime, he can play local electoral politics around oil, and rest on  his laurels as “the most progressive president since LBJ” Of course we’ll have a choice between another round of Biden or another round of some republican nutjob, so it’s hobson’s choice: you are offered two bowls of shit, except one has sriracha sauce on it, which one do you eat?

As long as fossil fuel prices are held down, there will be no incentive to shift away from fossil fuels, and humanity will continue careening forward in its clown car, straight toward the cliff. Except it’s not a cliff: its an uncontrollable slope that just gets worse and worse and there’s no turning back and it’s “hang on and pray” and hope the bottom is not too horrible except that all the scientists have predicted that, yes, it is.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    That control room looks bigger than the reactor. If there design isn’t modern enough that I can run it from a smartphone, then they are doing something wrong.

  2. says

    or was it because Biden got oil prices down, which drove down consumer costs and made inflation look less bad?

    I doubt it, because the average US resident believes (wrongly) that, right now, inflation, unemployment, and violent crime are at unprecedented levels. And the media are doing nothing to inform them of the truth. Instead, they’re just reinforcing it by reciting polls that suggest that that’s what folks believe.

    Regarding “energy independence”, that means different things to different people. To Repubs, it means not buying oil/gas from other countries, but rather, extracting our own. I think of it on a different scale. I would like to see energy follow the same arc that computers did. Years ago, you had one big computer feeding a whole bunch of individual dumb terminals. That’s like the current power station/customer model. Nowadays, we have “local intelligence” and processing power, and a network that interconnects all of those computers. Quite robust (thanks, DARPA). In a similar fashion, energy should be decentralized. Every house, school, business, etc. should have some local generating capacity, and they can all be connected to a network (grid). It won’t happen overnight (just like it didn’t with computers), but it’s an obvious model to follow. That’s true energy independence, right down to the consumer.

  3. lochaber says

    I just think it’s kinda funny that the people who complain the most about the cost of gasoline, often drive the most fuel-inefficient vehicles available. Some kinda disconnect there…

  4. Dunc says

    @lochaber: “You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers … these are people of the land … the common clay of the New West. You know – morons.”

  5. birgerjohansson says

    A tiny little positive angle in this shitshow: The goal of making stable perovskite photovoltaic cells is getting within reach.
    And work towards stable lithium/metal batteries is progressing.

  6. JM says

    @3 lochaber: For a lot of people with big trucks it isn’t a disconnect, it’s a statement of political allegiance. There is a significant fraction for which a big truck is a statement of climate denial. When they say the price of gas is too high they are not thinking about getting a smaller vehicle, they are saying policy should be extracting as much oil as possible.

  7. lochaber says

    JM@6> I’ve met enough that I get that, but I still think Dunc@4’s comment is plenty applicable…

  8. says

    The goal of making stable perovskite photovoltaic cells is getting within reach.

    It seems to me that research in better PV and storage is paying off a lot more than SMR and/or fusion.

    My whole life I have imagined how we could use fusion energy to turn Earth into a paradise, but… it’s still just a few years away. If we were as rational as we like to imagine we are, the US would have, long ago, stood down (say) military spending and invested for 20 years in Manhattan Project-style fusion programs. I think the US could easily coast 20 years on its already massive military, which is mostly designed to go up against 1950s level tech – basically, “OK everyone leave us alone we are all working on this thing and if we can crack it, our finishing move is we’ll buy you all.”

  9. says

    I just think it’s kinda funny that the people who complain the most about the cost of gasoline, often drive the most fuel-inefficient vehicles available. Some kinda disconnect there…

    I think that what you’re measuring is susceptibility to propaganda.

    I have often wondered about that, imagining, for example, that humans have a critical period during our development where we are more inclined to accept new learning, than to question it. I.e.: what if children tend to be more credulous (as part of learning programming) until they are 14 or so? If that theory were anything but the deranged imaginings of an old fart, it would explain religion and a great deal of politics/propaganda. What if the shutdown of that critical period were also determined by, say, the onset of puberty in general – but some people never fully shut down? Then you’d have flocks of people who were more predisposed to absorb propaganda and doctrine. [Disclaimer: that was the outline of a novel I thought about a few times before concluding I can’t write fiction very well. Besides, Greg Bear’s Blood Music came along and did it better.]

  10. Dunc says

    As for small reactors: we already have quite a bit of experience with them. If I was looking to design a small nuclear reactor, I’d start with an existing naval design. How many submarine reactors can you fit in a disused oil tanker?

  11. says

    If I was looking to design a small nuclear reactor, I’d start with an existing naval design.

    I’ve wondered about that, myself.

    Apparently out in Idaho Falls they have an entire submarine buried a couple stories down, as a test-bed for teaching naval reactor management. Rickover’s nuclear navy was extremely well-trained regarding the operation and principles of the reactor (unlike the Soviet, “push the green button” approach) I do not understand why that could not be replicated many times over. Except for the military instinct to classify the hell out of everything.

    There are also plutonium decay power systems such as the one the CIA [wired] hauled up into the Himalayas and proceeded to lose track of. I believe those are used to power some satellites and rovers off planet.

    The only plausible excuse I can come up with is that it’s deeply tied into weapons manufacturing and they’re restricting the technology because, basically, we’re assholes like that.

    The pair on the USS Enterprise outputs 1gw collectively. The US could make a lot of money fielding, feeding, operating and decommissioning them. Calcutta consumes 10gw so they’d want 20…

  12. cvoinescu says

    Dunc @ #11: Naval reactors use highly enriched fuel in order to be compact and for the fuel to last a long time. (They’re usually awkward to refuel.) Enrichment is very expensive, so it makes perfect sense if you have infinite money, but not for commercial generation that’s supposed to be cheaper than large power plants.

    We’re doing the same thing with nuclear generation that we’re doing with software: increasingly complex systems that mostly fail to deliver on the promised safety and efficiency (or even, you know, existence). For a moment, I thought that the small nuclear reactors, for all their problems, would be a way to walk back some of this complexity, so they might just be successful (from an engineering point of view, if not commercially). Alas, I was mistaken; they’re vaporware.

  13. Dunc says

    @cvoinescu: Thanks, that makes sense.

    Oh well, back to going for the best from Rolls Royce’s SMR programme… They do at least have the advantage of having built a lot of naval reactors, so they’re not starting from scratch. And they’ve got government backing, so they’re not dependent on VC funding… Unfortunately, it’s the British government, so theres a good chance they’ll fuck it up.

  14. says

    Oh well, back to going for the best from Rolls Royce’s SMR programme…

    Interesting how the Rolls Royce SMR also seems to mostly consist of PowerPoints with 3D renderings of a parking lot that looks straight out of the NuScale brochure. Weird.

    I don’t know if you’ve read Charlie Stross’ report on visiting the Torness nuclear reactor (Rolls Royce built if I recall correctly)

    The title is great: “Nothing like this will be built again”

  15. Dunc says

    Marcus, @#15: Yes, I have read that. The AGR programme was one of the things that killed the British nuclear power industry – turns out that if you give a bunch of engineers a blank cheque and tell them to build the best, they can get really carried away. Unfortunately, it also turns out that it wasn’t actually all that good – some of them have had to be shut down because their cores are badly cracked.

  16. outis says

    It seems indeed that small reactors are failing to materialize. Maybe a pity, because the building times for normal ones are getting ridicolous: Olkiluoto opened after 18 years of pottering around! But even with reduced dimensions, I would be amazed to see one built in less than 10 years. And this assumes the blueprints actually exist, which it seems they do not. Also, never underestimate regulatory impasses, the paperwork is fierce.
    Another issue: spent fuel treatment. For many of those there’s no acknowledged reprocessing procedure (for classic reactors, PUREX is indeed horrid but at least it’s there). Let’s see what happens in China, where they recently went critical with some TRISO particle reactors, and want to build a further sixteen (!). Small units, good passive safety, but no idea how they are going to clean up afterwards – a colleague of mine suggested they are simply going to chuck the irradiated fuel elements in some hole in the ground. Yikes.

  17. says

    Small units, good passive safety, but no idea how they are going to clean up afterwards

    Apparently decommissioning is another big problem with naval reactors. By the time they have run their course they are apparently exceptionally nasty, best hauled off somewhere and buried. [The reactor of the Thresher apparently held together and is sunken 8,400 feet down. Hyman Rickover said: “I can assure you there is no radioactive hazard as a result of this unfortunate accident,” Rickover declared. “Reactors of the type used in the Thresher, as well as in all our nuclear submarines and surface ships, can remain submerged indefinitely in seawater without creating any hazard.” source That sounds like exactly the kind of tech that would be good for small modular reactors. “The radioactive isotope cobalt-60, used in the coolant systems of both submarines, was found in small doses within sediment samples in 1998, but not in surrounding water or marine life.” Um Cobalt 60 coolant?]

  18. lochaber says

    off topic comment:

    Ran across this youtube video recently, some guy (ex tech worker, I think?) has a small farm in New England, and I sometimes watch some of the videos when I’m bored because the critters are amusing, and it seems like he’s trying to take a more sustainable approach to a small farm. And, he’s had some run-ins with overly-entitled hunters.

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