Development of small modular reactors is being supported via a cost-shared funding programme in the United States. We look at the progress made so far and how they will act as a replacement for retired coal plants and in tandem with renewable energy sources to provide consistent power.
By Ritesh Gupta
The domestic nuclear industry in the US has been making steady progress in terms of working out a viable small modular reactor (SMR) design.
Described as one-third the size of current nuclear power plants or about 300 WM, SMRs are in news for their compact, scalable designs.
The US Energy Department (DOE) signed a couple of significant “cost-share” agreements last year to support aspects, such as engineering and design certification. It recently allotted an award to NuScale Power to encourage a project to design, certify and help commercialise SMRs. Through a five-year cost-share agreement, the department shared that it will spend up to half of the total project cost. The initiative is expected to pave the way for NuScale to obtain a Nuclear Regulatory Commission design certification and achieve commercial operation around 2025.
Prior to this announcement, in August 2013, the department finalised plans for an additional $20.5m in funding to its Cooperative Agreement with Babcock & Wilcox mPower under the Small Modular Reactor Licensing Technical Support Programme. The firstinstalmentof $79m was allocated by the department upon the signing of the formal agreement with B&W mPower in April.
The B&W mPower reactor is termed as an advanced integral pressurised water reactor designed to generate 180 MW of electricity.
“SMRs, B&W mPower specifically, is making great strides toward deployment,” says Christofer M. Mowry, president and CEO of Generation mPower. He says the team is actively engaged in the development of the Design Certification Application, which is on track for submittal to the NRC in the fourth quarter of 2014.
“We anticipate the Construction Permit Application will be submitted in 2015, with construction beginning at the Clinch River Site in 2018. This schedule puts the first mPower reactors online in 2022,” says Mowry, who led his team in securing subsidies from the U. S. Department of Energy; the first available funding of its kind made available to the SMR market.
The team believes that SMRs have commercial appeal due to the flexibility in deployment. The power output at 360 MW for two units matches the requirement needed to replace retiring coal plants.
“There is a great deal of international interest due to the potential for siting mPower reactors in locations that could not support large reactors,” says Mowry. He says mPower reactors are unique in that they can work in tandem with renewable energy sources to provide a constant and reliable source of energy that can grow as a utility needs more power. “As far as challenges, there’s nothing unique facing the mPower reactor. Because it uses proven light water reactor technology it can be licenced under existing regulations,” says Mowry.
Mowry shares that there are a number of factors that make mPower reactors safer than traditional nuclear reactors.
“The mPower reactor utilises a passive safety system and is housed in a fully underground containment structure. The underground containment significantly improves plant security and also reduces risks associated with earthquakes, external events and environmental impact,” he says. “In addition, the nuclear core and steam generator are contained within a single vessel, enhancing the reliability and safety of the design. These factors, coupled with the already proven reliability of nuclear energy, make SMRs a compelling choice for low-carbon power generation.”
For one, who started closely tracking SMRs as part of his work managing all reactor-related projects at Ux Consulting (UxC) in 2008, Jonathan Hinze, SVP, International at UxC, says although SMR projects by the Russians (e.g., OKBM Afrikantov’s KLT-40S and VBER-300), South Koreans (e.g., KAERI’s SMART), and Chinese (e.g., Tsinghua/INET’s HTR-PM) were already well underway by then, the “SMR mini-boom” didn’t really take off until major announcements by NuScale and B&W mPower around 2008/2009.
He also remembers that there was an op-ed in a leading publication by then DOE Secretary Steven Chu making big waves in early 2010 as he extolled the virtues and promise of SMRs. “Of course, this was all before the March 2011 Fukushima accident, which created both headwinds and new opportunities for SMRs,” says Hinze. For its part, UxC analysed SMRs in its Small Modular Reactor Assessments (SMRA) report published in December 2011.
He says the early efforts by the SMR vendors in the U.S. and elsewhere, while significant, were still preliminary.
“In my view, the big step changes and increased energy in the SMR industry has come about as a result of the changing dynamics in the industry after Fukushima as well as the increased competitive nature of the SMR race,” he says.
In terms of the Fukushima effects, one clear development since 2011 has been the greater emphasis on passive safety in new reactor designs as well as anything that can be done to convince regulators, politicians, as well as the public that nuclear power safety is at the highest possible levels. Moreover, the smaller market size in general in the post-Fukushima world has reduced the potential opportunities for some of the competing larger reactor designs. “This has provided SMRs with a number of new market opportunities that may not have existed before,” adds Hinze.
He further explains in terms of increased competition, there are really two primary ways this has been borne out. Firstly, there is now a serious race underway among about 8 to 10 leading SMR designs to become the first off the block to deploy.
Secondly, within the U.S. market, the race among the four leading PWR designs has been propelled by the DOE’s cost-shared funding programme. Now that two of the four have won that funding (i.e., mPower and NuScale), the remaining two must find a different path forward to stay in the game, believes Hinze.
“In this respect, now that we are roughly five years into the new SMR race, I can say that there is already significant progress made by some of the vendors and others continue to be making strides in the same positive direction. The increased competitive nature of the SMR industry should be viewed as a good thing that will hopefully lead to the best and most innovative/ effective designs winning out in the end,” he adds.
However, there is certainly much more work that needs to be done and the next steps will likely be played out in the final design and regulatory space.
-General market agreement that LWR designs (e.g., integral PWRs) should be the first type of SMRs to be deployed given their evolutionary nature and past operating experience in certain areas (e.g., naval propulsion).
-U.S. Government (DOE) providing cost-sharing funds for two SMR designs to get them to the U.S. NRC licencing phase.
-Construction starts and licencing approvals for SMR designs in Russia, South Korea, China, and Argentina.
-Serious interest shown by both traditional nuclear power customers (e.g., some U.S. utilities) as well as newcomers (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, etc.).
Realistic future energy demand
In an interview published in October of last year with his alma mater, Swarthmore College, Mowry expressed that he still believes that “intellectual honesty” is the best argument for nuclear power.
“Climate change and the recognition of the impact of carbon emissions are forcing companies and societies to look at energy in a different way,” Mowry was quoted.
He also spoke of the SMR's role with the onset of more renewable energy sources coming online around the world. “Among the renewables, there are practical limits to how much an intermittent source, like wind, can contribute to the entire energy mix. If you’re intellectually honest and you look at the technologies available together with the needs of society, you have to embrace responsible deployment of nuclear technology.”
That said, SMR developers are still in the early stages of ensuring that their products will someday wear the label of “safe, reliable, and low-carbon energy technology”. And if or when they do achieve this accolade, they will be filling a unique and much needed gap in the world’s low carbon energy future.
But without cost-sharing fruning from the US Department of Energy, some contenders are putting their SMR plans on the shelf to pursue more economic ventures. See in this week's news article how Westinghouse is holding back on its SMR endeavours to pursue more revenue generating business activities, such as decommissioning and new-build AP1000 plant construction http://analysis.nuclearenergyinsider.com/small-modular-reactors/westinghouse-holds-back-smr-plans
As civil nuclear decommissioning facilities and contractors grow in experience and countries such as the US and UK look to decommission military nuclear waste as soon as possible there is a business opportunity for those that meet the requirements.
The latest United States budget has earmarked $907.6m for nuclear energy research and development in advanced reactor and fuel cycle technologies as well as small modular reactor licensing technical support. But is it enough to attract private sector investment?
An alliance with Bechtel for US decommissioning is something of a return of nuclear power prowess for Westinghouse. But it is also likely a sign of things to come for the industry.