In the run up to the launch of Nuclear Energy Insider’s Small Modular Reactor (SMR) Report 2013 – published in conjunction with the 3rd Annual SMR Conference – we bring you an exclusive preview from our interview with Mike McGough.
Mike McGough is the Chief Commercial Officer of NuScale Power - the company that claims to be behind the first SMR design proposed for commercialization. Taken directly from the report, Mike speaks on safety and design features, what could speed up the NRC licensing process and domestic and international market interest in the NuScale reactor.
Interview by Heba Hashem
Q: Could you tell us about the specifications of the NuScale SMR and the history of its development?
A: The NuScale reactor is the first small modular reactor design proposed for commercialization. We began development of the reactor back in 2000 with a DOE grant that funded the development of our technology, which was an integrated light pressurized-water reactor. Each reactor has a 45MW electric capacity, and can be combined with as many as 12 – from 1 to 12 in any combination. And if you had 12 reactors; 12 x 45MWe that would be a total of 540MWe. So it can give you any scalability between 45MWe and 540MWe in one power plant.
The design came out of the DOE grant in 2000, the company was formally formed in 2007, and we began working on the licensing of the design with the NRC in 2008. We put into operation a one-third scale electrically heated prototype and started testing in 2003. We have been operating system tests for all of the fundamental safety parameters of our design for almost 10 years now.
Q: What are the safety features of the design?
A: There are several unique safety features in the design, but the most important is that our reactor has seven layers of protection between the fuel and the public. In a normal PWR that operates anywhere in the world, you have the fuel, which resides within the cladding; this is the first layer of the protection. The second layer is the reactor vessel, which houses the fuel. And the third layer is the reactor containment building, and outside the reactor building containment you have the public. It’s where you meet the air and environment.
In our reactor design, we first have the fuel that sits in the cladding; beyond the cladding is the reactor vessel; beyond that is the containment vessel, and the containment vessel is submerged in a water reactor pool, so you have a layer of shielding from a radiation standpoint and water for cooling of the outside of the containment vessel – that’s the fourth layer. The fifth layer is a stainless steel-lined concrete pool, and above the pool we have a biological missile shield that sits on top of the reactor module bay. The final layer is the reactor building itself which is designed for withstanding aircraft and crashes, and the entire assembly (reactor vessel and pool) is all underground. So it’s a very low-profile design
Q: What does all this mean in terms of safety?
A: The way the safety of a power plant is measured is in terms of something called core damage frequency, and this is calculated based on probabilistic assessment risk calculations that assumes how many things have to go wrong in order for there to be damage to the core – if there’s damage to the core of the nuclear reactor that’s the beginning of the possibility of bad things happening. That’s why the core damage frequency is like the yardstick that safety is measured by.
Current operating nuclear plants around the world have a core damage frequency in the neighbourhood of 1x 10 to the minus 5 core damage event per reactor years of operation, which means one in every 10,000 reactor operating years. In our probabilistic risk assessment calculations our core damage frequency is 1 x 10 to the minus 8, so that’s one in ten million operating reactor years, which is a much, much lower frequency of a core damage event. The reason for that is because we have many different, additional, protective mechanisms in our plant.
The next thing I would say about safety is that if you consider the ability of a reactor to withstand something like a Fukushima event, a catastrophic environmental incurrence of epic proportions, what happens to your plant? In our case, our plant has sufficient water in the common pool to safely cool all 12 reactors – if you had a 12 reactor installation – from their full power condition to a complete and safe shutdown condition and then to cool it to room temperature over 257 days. The common pool will never boil off and the temperatures of all the reactors will be down to 0.2MW, which is the amount of heat that comes from about 200 hair blow-dryers. You wind up with a plant that is able to withstand those catastrophic events without any release to the public and without any required operator intervention and without requiring any offsite power. So in the event of a station blackout, where there’s no power available to the plant or an external source of power, this would not be a scenario that challenges our plant.
Q: Would the underground location of the NuScale reactor be prone to floods, and how can operators access the site in that case?
A: Normally, you would not build the reactor in a flood zone or at subsea level, but if you were to have a flooding condition, it doesn’t do anything to our reactors, they can stay there forever and not cause any harm to anyone. We could just say “let’s leave them there”. There would be no release of damaging radiation or contaminants outside of the plant.
Q: How is the reactor going to be refueled?
A: Our plant is similar to most PWRs in that the fuel is shipped to the site and installed in the reactor vessel, then the reactor is put into operation. When the operating cycle is complete, the reactor is opened up and the used fuel is removed and new fuel is installed. The reactor is not shipped with fuel in it.
Q: What is your timeline for commercial deployment? Do you have a date in mind?
A: We have started our NRC licensing activities and the way you can tell if someone has done that, is when the NRC opens a project number. If you look through the NRC website and what project numbers exist for SMRs, you will see that NuScale has one and Babcock & Wilcox has one, but other designs don’t yet have project numbers with active work going on in them.
The reason this is important is that once you open a project number with the NRC, you begin to send them documents for them to work on and you pay them. Every time you send them a document and ask them to review it and provide their input, they send you a bill; I think it’s about $268 an hour for every hour they spend working on your documents. You don’t want to open a job number unless you’re sure you’re going to be able to afford spending this kind of money. We’ve been doing that for five years.
Q: Do you know how long it will take or is it an ongoing process?
A: Yes, we know how long it will take. It’s a very well-defined process; called the NRC 10 CFR Part 52 process, and it begins with the submittal of the design certification application. Once submitted and accepted by the NRC, it takes about three to three and a half years for the NRC to complete the review of the application, and to issue a design certification.
Once submitted, the design certification can be the basis of a specific project to receive a construction operating license. An operating license allows someone to build the plant and operate it and that construction operating license will usually be issued about six months after design certification. From the time you submit the design certification application until the time you receive the construction operating license which allows you to build is about four years.
Q: Where is the first location in which you’re planning to commercially deploy the reactor in the U.S.?
A: It’s not clear, and it’s the same for everyone. No one has a purchase order from a customer that says “I’ll buy your nuclear power plant” or “I’ll buy your small modular reactor”. We have many customers who have expressed interest to buy our plant but no one will be signing those purchase orders until they have a fairly high level of confidence that the design certification and construction operating license will be issued and that the project will be competitive in the forecasts of environment of their particular utility.
With that said, our first project as identified could be in South Carolina at the Savannah River Nuclear Laboratories to be owned and operated by South Carolina Electric and Gas, and for them to be the licensees. Have they agreed to do all those things? No, but they have agreed to agree to do all those things, conditioned upon pre-conceived notions about the design and licensing process. There’s a series of commitments that will be made along the way during the licensing process, but there are four competitors in the U.S. in this market, and none of the four have any commitments from any customer.
Q: Do you think that anything can be done to speed up the licensing process for SMRs in the U.S.?
A: Yes, there are ways to do that. The NRC is a Federal agency and their money comes from the Federal government so they are only able to dedicate the resources for evaluating the design certification applications and construction operating licenses applications to the extent that they have money available in their budget. If they had more money, could they dedicate more resources? Absolutely. But to an extent, these things just take time. You cannot just rush through reviews. There’s a submittal, and there’s a receipt. And these documents are 8,000 to 10,000 pages long. When you write a 10,000-page document and send it to someone, the first thing they have to do is verify that it’s complete, that it meets the requirements of the 10 CFR 52 licensing process. It takes some time.
Q: Does the NRC plan to employ additional experienced staff specifically to look into SMR applications?
A: They will to some extent. The SMR thing is new, and there’s a lot of new ground being ploughed. The good news is at least with our design, it uses things that we all know and understand, such as gravity, conduction and convection. You don’t have to do as much verification with gravity works as you would do to verify other new concepts. Some of the other designs from our competitors have many more mechanical components.
Q: Have you established any inter-company alliances with utilities or with research organizations or electric power companies?
A: Yes, we have established many with active prospective customers. We have an advisory board that is comprised of interested parties who are prospectively interested in procuring our plant. They meet with us multiple times a year to provide us with their thoughts about what they would like to see in the plant design and to provide us guidance as to how they intend to site it and when. We have 22 members on that advisory board. I’m not sure if I have their permission to tell you who they are. But they are most of the large utilities in the U.S. and several from outside the U.S.
Q: Will such consortiums help you when it comes to international activity or will you need to form new contracts when you start deploying outside the U.S.?
A: There will be different contracts for every deployment. The potential customer outside of the U.S. will have a contract with us as well as customers inside the U.S. I think that our supply chain relationships may differ for projects in countries outside of the U.S. For example, if we were building a plant in China or India, there may be some capabilities within those countries that would lend themselves to be part of our supply chain. But we have not yet made firm decisions.
Q: How are you monitoring the markets outside the U.S. and observing international opportunities?
A: We’ve been to most of the countries in the world that have prospects for future new nuclear. We have very strong commercial organizations that we participate in and many global forums in these regards. We’re fortunate that we’ve been in this business for a long time, so we are reasonably well-known amongst prospective SMR buyers. To a large part, people know us well enough to call us. We will go make presentations to them and provide them information to support their resource planning. So it’s mostly about personal interactions.
Q: Are you actively pursuing at the moment any licensing work outside of the U.S. or do you need to start first domestically?
A: We’re first focused on the U.S., but we are engaged in some additional licensing activities outside of the U.S. and some other countries.
Q: How do you think the U.S. SMR market will shape up against the international SMR market; with Korea working on the SMART, and Russia working on several designs?
A: I think that we have some reasons to be optimistic. We have an interesting development of our plant in the licensing process. People are very eager to see how that will be done in the U.S. Other countries may not have the same kinds of certification requirements, and if they don’t have the same certification requirements, they could accelerate the deployment of SMRs in other countries sooner.
But I think there is worldwide respect for the U.S. licensing process, and I think to some extent, some countries will not want to go forward with the construction of an SMR without the confidence that comes with an NRC-design certification. I think that if we had an accelerated licensing process in the U.S. it would probably help us, but I think some people might be willing to wait.
Nuclear Energy Insider’s SMR Report 2013 is due for publication late-March 2013.
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