Interest is growing in the class of units rated at 300 MW or less

Recent developments in the field of small modular reactors (SMRs) suggest that the nuclear renaissance in the U.S. may come in two sizes. The first size, at ratings in terms of electricity generation of 1,000 MW or more, has a near term future that involves eight reactors being completed in the U.S. by 2020. The second size, at ratings of less than 300 MW, shows near-term promise for designs that are based on conventional light water reactor (LWR) technologies.

The Department of Energy proposes in its FY 2012 budget to spend $67 million on federal R&D in LWR technologies. This plan doesn't do much for high temperature gas cooled reactors, or other 'fast reactor' designs that use liquid metal like sodium for cooling. SMRs in both classes face a series of challenges getting safety certifications from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

SMRs of all types may get new attention as a result of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. John Kelly, an official at the Department of Energy, told a Senate hearing in early June that SMRs may have a safety edge over their bigger cousins. According to Kelly, who testified at a hearing of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, SMRs have a lower power level and require less cooling after shutdown. Kelly also noted that several SMR developers proposed to build their reactors in underground bunkers to improve safety and security.

Several pieces of legislation are pending in the Senate. Joe Colvin, then President of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), also testified at the hearing and talked about all three proposals. (full text of Colvin testimony)

  • S.512 – the Nuclear Power 2021 act
  • S.937 – the American Alternative Fuels act
  • S.1067 – amendment to the Energy policy act of 2005

The first SMRs in the U.S. were used successfully in U.S. Navy submarines. The Nautilus, which went under the sea ice of the North Pole, was powered by a 10 MW unit. 

Colvin started by describing work at ANS by its Special Committee on SMR Generic Licensing Issues. The committee, composed of industry experts participating as individuals, and not on behalf of their employers, addressed topics like staffing requirements, emergency response, and manufacturing concerns. (Full text of committee report).

In summary Colvin said three things about SMRs.

  • This class of reactor, by size, has great potential to contribute to the U.S. economy and our national security.
  • Of the three pieces of proposed legislation, S.512 is an important step toward near term deployment of SMR technology.
  • Not all the challenges facing SMRs are in licensing. Some are in technology or operations.

Prospects wax and wane for some designs

While people were talking in Washington, some companies were doing something to make SMRs a commercial reality.  Last winter Holtec International, which has been self-funding development of a 140 MW LWR, said it had completed the first poof-of-principle studies. Holtec claims that it will be able to build its reactors in 24 months using a factory it plans to build itself.

The Tennessee Valley Authority and Babcock & Wilcox announced on June 16 that the two firms have signed a letter of intent that defines project plans to design, license, and build up to six 125-MW mPower [tm] small modular reactors at TVA’s Clinch River site in Tennessee.

In a statement, the two organizations said that the first unit could be operational by 2020. TVA plans to submit a construction permit application to the NRC in 2012, and B&W plans to submit a design certification application to the NRC in 2013.

The B&W SMR design is based on conventional LWR design principles. B&W is developing a system test facility in New Bedford, VA., where it will spend the next three years collecting data on design and safety performance of the reactor.

The prospects of small modular reactor developer NuScale Power, of Corvallis, Oregon, got brighter this month. NuScale has been recalling some laid off employees. It told an Oregon wire service it had obtained “bridge funding” from an undisclosed investor group, allowing the firm to restore about 20 positions.

Last winter the firm’s funding was waylaid by an unrelated regulatory issue with one of its primary investors. NuScale was not named in the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission review of the Michael Kenwood Group.

Bruce Landry, a spokesman for NuScale, told the wire service that the firm is working to get new investors, which will allow it to move ahead with its plans to develop, license, and market a 45-MW lightwater reactor.

TerraPowwer sets sail for success overseas

While all this work was looking at U.S. design and manufacturing activity, TerraPower, backed by Microsoft's Bill Gates, is looking overseas to obtain support. The firm, based in Bellevue, Wash., claims to have verified the design principles for its "traveling wave" reactor using supercomputers. While the design work is based in the U.S., it's unlikely the reactor will be built in this country.

Instead, TerraPower says it is on fast track to build something by 2015 and to achieve this result is talking with other nations that might be interested in licensing the technology. The firm says the regulatory barriers in the U.S. make it too difficult to achieve meet that schedule. 

TerraPower's mission to bring cheap, reliable energy to developing nations is tied to the objectives of the Gates Foundation to reduce poverty. One way to address the problem is to find ways to make abundant energy available at low cost. Gates thinks the TerraPower design, which cannot be used to make weapons, is an answer to this challenge.

Yet, TerraPower isn't likely to get much support in the U.S. Pete Lyons, the Department of Energy official in charge of handing out R&D money for SMR projects, is focused on LWR designs. 

That policy decision could turn out to be a loss for this country in terms of jobs and technology leadership. It won't be the first time Washington got one idea in its head while others marched overseas to find friendlier shores.