Small Reactors May Be Nuclear Power’s Future

Advocates of small modular reactors, pictured in this illustration, say they can bring costs down.
National Journal
Clare Foran
See more stories about...
Clare Foran
Sept. 30, 2013, 11:49 p.m.

While coun­tries such as Ja­pan and Ger­many are mov­ing away from nuc­le­ar en­ergy in the wake of the Fukushi­ma re­act­or melt­down in 2011, the United States is tak­ing a dif­fer­ent tack.

“The prom­ise of nuc­le­ar power is clear,” En­ergy Sec­ret­ary Ern­est Mon­iz said in Ju­ly at a Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee hear­ing, adding, “Nuc­le­ar power has an im­port­ant role in Pres­id­ent Obama’s all-of-the-above ap­proach to en­ergy.”

For the White House, part of nuc­le­ar en­ergy’s prom­ise comes in the form of scaled-down fa­cil­it­ies called small mod­u­lar re­act­ors, or SMRs. The av­er­age U.S. nuc­le­ar re­act­or has an op­er­at­ing ca­pa­city of 1,000 mega­watts or more; SMRs, by con­trast, have a gen­er­at­ing ca­pa­city of less than 300 mega­watts. They have yet to be de­ployed on a com­mer­cial scale, but the ad­min­is­tra­tion is bet­ting on this op­tion as a way to di­ver­si­fy the na­tion’s en­ergy port­fo­lio and rein in car­bon emis­sions.

Obama has put the En­ergy De­part­ment at the helm of a $452 mil­lion pub­lic-private part­ner­ship to fin­ance SMR con­struc­tion. In Novem­ber, DOE awar­ded a grant to U.S-based Bab­cock & Wil­cox to cre­ate a 180-mega­watt SMR in co­oper­a­tion with the Ten­ness­ee Val­ley Au­thor­ity and Bechtel. The re­act­or is slated to be up and run­ning by 2022.

Why the push for smal­ler re­act­ors?

First, there’s the eco­nom­ic ar­gu­ment. SMRs would be cheap­er than con­ven­tion­al re­act­ors simply be­cause they’re smal­ler. This means less over­head for util­ity com­pan­ies. The com­pon­ent parts of SMRs would be man­u­fac­tured in factor­ies as mod­ules that could be shipped for on-site as­sembly. Sup­port­ers of the tech­no­logy say this would also bring down costs, al­though not every­one agrees.

“In the early 1970s, power com­pan­ies built large re­act­ors to bring down costs by achiev­ing eco­nom­ies of scale,” said Thomas Co­chran, a con­sult­ant for the Nat­ur­al Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram. “So if we start mak­ing smal­ler re­act­ors, you’d ex­pect costs to rise.”

Pro­ponents of the tech­no­logy fol­low a dif­fer­ent line of reas­on­ing. “Smal­ler re­act­ors could be cost-com­pet­it­ive be­cause, since they’re built in a fact­ory, you can con­struct them more quickly and on a mass scale,” said Doug Wal­ters, vice pres­id­ent of reg­u­lat­ory af­fairs at the Nuc­le­ar En­ergy In­sti­tute, a pro-nuc­le­ar ad­vocacy group. “That would al­low for faster and more ef­fi­cient as­sembly.”

In ad­di­tion, SMRs could be safer than the aging stock of U.S. nuc­le­ar power plants. This is be­cause they’ll fea­ture pass­ive design tech­no­logy, built-in safety sys­tems that rely on auto­mated mech­an­isms with­in the re­act­or and would con­tin­ue to func­tion in the event of an emer­gency or a loss of elec­tri­city.

“Be­cause SMRs are new­er, they prob­ably will be safer than the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of re­act­ors in the same way that a 2013 Ford is safer than a 1973 Ford,” said Mi­chael Mari­otte, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the non­profit Nuc­le­ar In­form­a­tion and Re­source Ser­vice, an an­ti­nuc­lear or­gan­iz­a­tion. “But there could be oth­er safety con­cerns…. For ex­ample, some com­pan­ies have been talk­ing about cut­ting costs by us­ing just one con­trol room to run five to six re­act­ors,” he said. “When you get to the root cause of nuc­le­ar ac­ci­dents, it’s al­most al­ways due to hu­man er­ror, and if you have few­er people watch­ing the re­act­ors, there’s a great­er chance of prob­lems.”

While SMRs re­main an un­proven tech­no­logy, DOE is con­tinu­ing to look for com­pan­ies to de­vel­op the tech­no­logy and is ex­pec­ted to award ad­di­tion­al match­ing grants in the com­ing months.

Ac­cord­ing to Charles Ebinger, a for­eign policy seni­or fel­low and the dir­ect­or of the En­ergy Se­cur­ity Ini­ti­at­ive at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, Obama sees this as a way to help ad­vance his second-term cli­mate agenda, giv­en that nuc­le­ar power, over the life of a re­act­or, is a near-zero-emis­sions tech­no­logy.

Peter Ly­ons, the En­ergy De­part­ment’s as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary for nuc­le­ar en­ergy, echoed this sen­ti­ment. “Nuc­le­ar plants of­fer the op­por­tun­ity to de­ploy clean-en­ergy tech­no­logy across the coun­try,” he said. “The pres­id­ent’s plan isn’t a fo­cus on nuc­le­ar, but it is a re­cog­ni­tion that nuc­le­ar is one of the few clean-en­ergy op­tions avail­able oth­er than re­new­ables. It’s cer­tainly a piece of the puzzle.”

If SMRs take off, they could spur U.S. man­u­fac­tur­ing and be shipped abroad, boost­ing ex­ports. Keep­ing a hand in nuc­le­ar power could also be­ne­fit na­tion­al se­cur­ity.

“I think from a glob­al per­spect­ive it’s best for the U.S. to stay a prom­in­ent play­er in the nuc­le­ar in­dustry,” said Dar­ren Gale, vice pres­id­ent and pro­ject dir­ect­or of Gen­er­a­tion mPower, LLC, a com­pany formed between Bab­cock & Wil­cox and Bechtel re­spons­ible for de­vel­op­ing the com­pany’s SMR pro­to­type with fund­ing from DOE. “If we don’t, the U.S. won’t have a voice in con­ver­sa­tions about nuc­le­ar tech­no­logy in the in­ter­na­tion­al arena.”

What We're Following See More »
THE QUESTION
How Many Jobs Would Be Lost Under Bernie Sanders’s Single-Payer System?
6 hours ago
THE ANSWER

More than 11 million, according to Manhattan Institute fellow Yevgeniy Feyman, writing in RealClearPolicy.

Source:
WEEKEND DATA DUMP
State to Release 550 More Clinton Emails on Saturday
7 hours ago
THE LATEST

Under pressure from a judge, the State Department will release about 550 of Hillary Clinton’s emails—“roughly 14 percent of the 3,700 remaining Clinton emails—on Saturday, in the middle of the Presidents Day holiday weekend.” All of the emails were supposed to have been released last month. Related: State subpoenaed the Clinton Foundation last year, which brings the total number of current Clinton investigations to four, says the Daily Caller.

Source:
LATER TO THIS YEAR’S NADER
Jim Webb Rules Out Independent Bid
7 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

UPDATED: Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) will not be playing the role of Ralph Nader in this year’s election. Speaking in Dallas today, Webb said, “We looked at the possibility of an independent candidacy. Theoretically, it could be done, but it is enormously costly and time sensitive, and I don’t see the fundraising trajectory where we could make a realistic run.”

Source:
HE’D SIPHON OFF DEM VOTES
RNC Chief Would Welcome Bloomberg
7 hours ago
THE DETAILS

“The lead­ers of the Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic na­tion­al com­mit­tees on Wed­nes­day weighed in on the pro­spect of an in­de­pend­ent pres­id­en­tial run by” former New York City May­or Mi­chael Bloomberg (I). “DNC Chair­wo­man Debbie Wasser­man Schultz sug­ges­ted that the former New York City may­or’s pri­or­it­ies are already ‘well cared-for’ in the Demo­crat­ic plat­form, while RNC lead­er Re­ince Priebus wel­comed the idea, say­ing Bloomberg would si­phon off votes from the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate.”

Source:
THE QUESTION
How Large Is Hillary Clinton’s Delegate Lead?
8 hours ago
THE ANSWER

Three hundred fifty-two, thanks to superdelegates pledged to Clinton, and the vagaries of the delegate allocation process in early states. Not bad, considering her results have been a virtual tie and a blowout loss.

Source:
×