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
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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.”

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