By Juan Declet-Barreto, Edwin Lyman, and Paula García, Union of Concerned Scientists
In the aftermath of Hurricane María, Puerto Rico is considering many alternatives to fossil fuels to rebuild its climate- and disaster-resilient electricity infrastructure, including renewable wind and solar energy and small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs). While much is known by the public about the benefits and challenges of renewables, promoters of untested nuclear technologies emphasize their advantages but overlook their numerous disadvantages. Puerto Ricans should have all the facts about SMRs before making critical decisions about their energy future.
Small modular reactors (SMRs) are “small” because they can generate up to about 30 percent as much power as typical nuclear reactors operating today. They are modular because, in theory, they would be manufactured at central locations and installed at power plant sites in as-needed increments. As the costs of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and natural gas have dropped, utilities have lost interest in buying expensive large nuclear reactors, and smaller and potentially cheaper SMRs have been getting a lot of attention.
The United States Department of Energy just awarded a $820,000 grant to The Nuclear Alternatives Project (NAP) to conduct a feasibility study on deploying SMRs in Puerto Rico. NAP is a non-profit founded in 2016 whose mission is to use “science and evidence to determine whether modern reactors are a suitable option to power a desired economic vision.” NAP, like many others who care about reducing fossil fuel use in Puerto Rico, are proposing alternatives, and focuses on deployment of nuclear energy. But there is scant evidence that nuclear reactors —especially unproven, novel reactor concepts not yet built and tested— can safely wean islands away from fossil fuels and reliably provide power when extreme weather events strike.
SMRs are problematic for economic, safety, and security reasons. While a single SMR could be cheaper than a large reactor because of its smaller size, it would generate more expensive electricity because of economies of scale. SMR vendors claim that this could be offset by cost savings from efficiencies of mass production of identical units, but this would take a long time, and a lot of orders, to achieve.
Second, the safety of SMRs is not as straightforward as proponents assert. Nuclear reactors need electrical power and diesel fuel to stay safe in emergencies. We can’t forget that it was loss of electrical power from flooding that doomed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. While some vendors argue that their multiple-reactor plants can operate in a power blackout, this is unproven and doesn’t have the approval of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). And if flooding disrupts electrical systems, as happened at Fukushima, that strategy might not even work. Risks to SMRs would be especially acute in flood- and hurricane-prone Puerto Rico, which is still dealing with a significantly weakened electric generation and distribution infrastructure in the aftermath of Hurricane María. Besides, nuclear reactors would not operate when hurricanes attack Puerto Rico, as the NRC requires nuclear plants to shut down in advance of hurricane-force winds.
Finally, to reduce operating costs, the nuclear industry is proposing weakening safety and security standards for SMRs, which could leave SMRs inadequately protected from extreme weather and defended from terrorist attacks.
Clearly, federal nuclear regulations do not support the economic, safety, or security claims touted in favor of SMRs—and neither does Puerto Rican law. Puerto Rico’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS, just passed in 2019) does not include nuclear as an option for ramping up to 100% renewables by 2050. In fact, the RPS’ main sponsor, Senator Larry Seilhamer, has said that none of the definitions of renewable energy in Puerto Rico’s RPS law consider, nor allow any space to infer, that nuclear energy sources are allowed by the law.
Puerto Rico has already been the host of a failed experiment with nuclear energy. In 1960, the first demonstration nuclear power plant in Latin America —BONUS— was built in Rincón. In 1970, BONUS was decommissioned because of technical problems too costly to repair. Puerto Rico should not be used again as a testbed for experimental nuclear technologies, especially given the island’s increasing vulnerability to hurricanes.
The nuclear industry has successfully lobbied in favor of nuclear energy exploration in Puerto Rico, as the Legislature passed in 2018 a resolution to investigate the need for nuclear energy development there. This follows on the heels of a paper written in the same year by the Civil Nuclear Trade Advisory Committee (CINTAC), where they argued that SMRs can transform the island’s economy. But the economic benefits of SMR argued by CINTAC are limited to development of an SMR industry, and the direct and indirect jobs that construction of the facility itself will create, along with other supporting industries for parts and maintenance that will emerge —they predict— after an SMR is built in Puerto Rico.
Peddling of small modular reactor experiments on the island is part of a long history of using Puerto Rico to test dangerous substances, materials, and procedures. We have argued that decades of heavy metal contamination from the U.S. Navy’s air-sea-battle exercises in the island towns of Vieques and Culebra, testing and long-term storage of Agent Orange in Puerto Rico’s tropical foliage, and cloud-seeding experiments without informed consent have placed Puerto Ricans in danger and eroded their trust of federal science. The nuclear reactor industry should not follow the lead of predatory, disaster profiteers circling the island not only to experiment with untested ideas, but also to profit from the island’s misery.
Plainly, the purpose of developing SMRs in Puerto Rico is to leverage scarce public funds to subsidize the start of an SMR industry. The winners will be SMR vendors and operators who will profit, and the losers will be millions of Puerto Ricans stuck with an untested energy technology that is not likely to help them weather future hurricanes.
But Puerto Rico has viable options that don’t include potentially dangerous energy sources. The island has extraordinary solar resources, and the interest in solar energy and energy storage has only increased since Hurricane María. Rooftop solar panels in Casa Pueblo in the interior mountains of the Cordillera Central, for example, withstood the destructive winds of María, demonstrating that if installed correctly, solar panels can resist hurricanes.
A solid electricity system for Puerto Rico, a territory that is already wrestling with bankruptcy, should only use proven, safe, resilient, and affordable technologies. And SMRs today miss the mark on most, if not all, of these criteria. There is much the island can do: diversify generation to incorporate local sources of energy (like solar and wind), upgrade its electrical distribution systems, integrate microgrids and energy storage, and reduce energy consumption through energy efficiency programs.
Juan Declet-Barreto is a Climate Scientist in the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Edwin Lyman is Acting Director of the Nuclear Safety Project and Senior Scientist in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Paula García is an Energy Analyst in the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.