The Big Problems with Small Nukes

Here are a few answers to some of the most frequently asked questions Columbia Riverkeeper gets about SMNRs.

What Does Columbia Riverkeeper Support Instead Of SMNRs?

By Kelly Campbell (she/her), Policy Director

Every morning when I open my email I am astonished at the huge number of articles in my news feed about small modular nuclear reactors (SMNRs). Many of them read as though they were taken straight from the industry’s talking points–touting small modular nuclear reactors as the next big thing, and the key to solving the climate crisis. But the truth is, when you look beyond the headlines, SMNRs do not live up to the hype. Instead, they are a costly distraction from the urgent need for a just transition to clean energy.  Here are a few answers to some of the most frequently asked questions Columbia Riverkeeper gets about SMNRs. Don’t see your question answered? Email us and we’ll look into it ( 


What Is A Small Modular Nuclear Reactor (SMNR Or SMR)?

Small modular nuclear reactors, sometimes called “advanced reactors,” are a type of nuclear reactor that is smaller than a conventional reactor, and would be assembled in factories and transported for on-site installation. While the industry likes to present them as “new,” they are really just repackaged older nuclear power plant designs, only smaller, usually about 300 MW each, instead of 1200 MW for an older reactor. Most SMNRs are proposed to be sited in packs of four to twelve reactors at one site. 

What SMNRs Are Proposed Near The Columbia River?

Currently, the company X-energy is proposing to build a SMNRs adjacent to the Hanford Nuclear Cleanup Site along the Columbia River. It has proposed and canceled plans to build in Washington several times in recent years.

Oregon-based nuclear company, NuScale, recently pulled the plug on its plans to build SMNRs at Idaho National Laboratories near the Snake River, when a consortium of small Utah utilities who were backing the project saw the writing on the wall and backed out from the project. NuScale’s stock has plunged, it has laid off at least 28% of its staff, and is being sued by its investors. Notably, the project was seven years behind schedule and had doubled its price tag. This project was the furthest along of any SMNR in the licensing process when it collapsed. 

Bill Gates’s Terrapower has also canceled earlier plans to build in Washington, and is currently planning to build its Natruim reactor in Wyoming. 

Why Does Columbia Riverkeeper Oppose SMNRs At Hanford?

They pollute and burden Tribal communities. While the nuclear industry claims to be “clean,” it is an extremely dirty technology, beginning with uranium mining which decimates Indigenous lands. SMNRs produce two to thirty times the radioactive waste of older nuclear designs, waste for which we have no national repository. Any community that hosts a nuclear reactor will likely be saddled with its waste for the foreseeable future. This harm falls disproportionately on Tribal Nations and Indigenous people.

They are too costly and take too long to come online. Nuclear energy now costs five times more than renewable energy options such as solar and wind, and nuclear projects are notorious for delays and cost overruns. 

They are dangerous. SMNRs sited at Hanford would be vulnerable to earthquakes, floods, and fires which may lead to nuclear accidents. An accident at any one Hanford facility could mean losing access to them all. We can’t afford this risk to the Columbia River.

What Does Columbia Riverkeeper Support Instead Of SMNRs?

We support a just transition to a clean energy economy. This includes a major emphasis on energy efficiency, energy conservation, and well-sited wind, solar, battery and other energy storage so that overburdened communities, including Tribal Nations, don’t bear the brunt of the transition. We believe the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s Energy Vision provides an excellent roadmap toward a clean and just energy future for the Columbia Basin. 

Do We Need Nuclear Baseload Power To Replace Fossil Fuel Baseload?

The idea of baseload power is an outdated concept, based on a model where coal was the main source of energy and renewables were novel and expensive. Now, renewables, coupled with storage and upgraded grids, make the idea of baseload obsolete. In addition, nuclear power plants are often shut down for months at a time, sometimes with no warning, dispelling the idea of nuclear providing baseload reliability. 

Is Nuclear Power Clean Energy?

Nuclear power, including power from SMNRs, is not clean energy. Nuclear power starts with the extraction of radioactive uranium, which has a disproportionate impact on Indigenous people. The building of a nuclear power plant entails a greenhouse-gas intensive process. The nuclear lifecycle ends with highly radioactive waste for which the U.S. has no national repository. Any community in which a nuclear power plant is sited is signing up to store nuclear waste for generations to come. Nuclear proponents are trying to latch on to the “clean energy” bandwagon, when in truth, they are an extractive technology of the past, just like coal. 

Why Not Build An SMNR To Replace Lower Snake River Dam Energy?

Despite all the other problems with SMNRs, given how long it takes new nuclear projects to come online, it would be a huge gamble to bet on one being up and running to “replace” energy from the Lower Snake River Dams in time to save the salmon. The fish can’t wait for nuclear projects that have a consistent track record for delays and cancellations.

Where Is Nuclear Waste Stored?

The proposed nuclear storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, has not been licensed and is opposed by the Western Shoshone and other Tribes. There is no national nuclear waste repository, and without that, it is irresponsible to create more nuclear waste, especially waste that would be sited along the Columbia River.

Do SMNRs Produce Nuclear Waste?

SMNRs, like nuclear reactors currently in operation, produce nuclear waste. In fact, SMNRs produce two to thirty times the radioactive waste of older nuclear designs. With no national geologic repository, radioactive waste is stored on-site in dry casks licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The waste stays radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, which creates a substantial burden on future generations.  

Can We Recycle Nuclear Waste?

“Reusing” or “recycling” spent fuel is not as simple as it might seem. According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “The claim that any nuclear reactor system can ‘burn’ or ‘consume’ nuclear waste is a misleading oversimplification. Reactors can actually use only a fraction of spent nuclear fuel as new fuel, and separating that fraction increases the risks of nuclear proliferation and terrorism.”

The bottom line: small modular nuclear reactors are a false solution to the climate crisis. They are too dirty, too expensive, and too late to be part of the clean energy future. 

Ready to Take Action?

Despite major drawbacks, the nuclear industry, is plowing ahead with its wasteful spending to build new nuclear reactors, including near the Columbia River. We need your help to stop them.