Retooling the Workforce for Small Modular Reactors
Dec25

Retooling the Workforce for Small Modular Reactors

Smaller reactors have many advantages, but in order to be cost effective in competitive energy markets a typical small modular reactor (SMR) will need to operate with a much smaller workforce than today’s large commercial nuclear energy facilities.  This will mandate a retooling of existing nuclear training programs to align with the knowledge and skills needed by the SMR staff. As opposed to fossil-fueled power plants in which the majority of operating costs are associated with the fuel they burn, the majority of the costs of generating electricity from nuclear energy are associated with the costs of capital to build the plant, and the ongoing cost of people needed to operate and maintain (O&M) the plant.  The capital costs, determined by construction & financing costs, are generally fixed during the first decades of operation.  The O&M costs, however, vary over the life of the plant and are highly dependent on overall labor costs; the number of people required and their salaries and benefits, contracted labor costs, and the cost of out-sourced services. For this reason the long-term economic viability of nuclear energy facilities relies upon maintaining capacity factors high and labor costs reasonable and predictable.  Obviously, the balance sheet also depends on the structure of the energy market in which the facility is located. Anti-nuclear groups understand this connection between labor costs and economic viability.  For years their strategy has been to convince nuclear regulators of the need for ever-tougher standards resulting in larger and larger staff sizes and thus tighter profit margins.  They are, in a very deliberate way, working to regulate nuclear energy out of business.  Coupled with lower electricity market prices brought about by falling natural gas prices, these higher labor costs mean some smaller nuclear plants are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain profitability. Utilities planning to deploy SMRs can expect these same anti-nuclear groups to push for regulations to limit their ability to operate with the smaller staff sizes needed. Using “ball park” numbers, today’s large 1000 MWe nuclear plants typically employ a staff of about 700 people, or about 0.7 people per megawatt. At this ratio a 100 MWe SMR would employ only about 70.  Under today’s paradigm of division of labor within a nuclear plant, separate groups of specialized workers perform various functions; operators operate the plant, maintenance technicians maintain and repair the equipment, chemists monitor and control the chemistry within plant systems, planners and schedulers do the planning and scheduling, and radiation protection technicians monitor radiation levels and help ensure everyone works safely.  The staff size enables economies of scale; in this case specialization is efficient because the amount of work...

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Small Modular Reactors May Offer Significant Safety & Security Enhancements

Download the Audio File Here Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are getting a lot of attention in the nuclear industry because they offer great potential for lower initial capital investment, scalability, and they come in sizes more appropriate for locations unable to accommodate larger 1000+ MW units.  However, there are some big potential advantages that have not been widely discussed that could make SMRs a game-changer.  These advantages are the potential for enhanced safety and security. Let me explain. The goal of nuclear plant emergency planning is to protect people from exposure to radiation they might receive during a reactor accident. That radiation exposure would come (mostly) from radioactive gas released into the air from a damaged nuclear plant. There are three physical barriers in all modern nuclear plants that keep radioactive gas inside the reactor: the metal cladding that encases the ceramic uranium fuel pellets, the thick steel reactor vessel and piping and that contains the reactor and coolant, and the concrete and steel containment building that encloses the reactor. For people to be in danger from a reactor accident first the fuel must overheat to create the radioactive gas. Then all three barriers (clad, system piping, and containment building) must be breached to provide a pathway for the radioactive gas to reach the atmosphere. Finally, there has to be a pressure difference to push the gas out of the plant and into the atmosphere. In water cooled reactors like most in use today, the hot water turns to steam and steam pressure builds up inside the containment.  If the containment is breached this pressure pushes the radioactive gas through the hole to the air outside. With this in mind, small modular reactors offer several big advantages that make them safer: They are smaller, so the amount of radioactivity contained in each reactor is less. So much less in fact, that even if the worse case reactor accident occurs, the amount of radioactive material released would not pose a risk to the public. In nuclear lingo we say SMRs have a smaller “source term.”  This source term is so small we can design the plant and emergency systems to virtually eliminate the need for emergency actions beyond the physical site boundaries.  Then, by controlling access to the site boundary, we can eliminate the need for off-site protective actions (like sheltering or evacuations). These smaller reactors contain less nuclear fuel.  This smaller amount of fuel (with passive cooling I’ll mention in a minute) slows down the progression of reactor accidents.  This slower progression gives operators more time to take action to keep the reactor cool.  Where operators in large reactors have...

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