DOE expands NuScale SMR plan to quantify heat, hydrogen benefits

The Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratories (INL) will implement design innovations and scaled testing at the U.S.' first small modular reactor (SMR) to optimize revenue streams from non-electricity applications, Shannon Bragg-Sitton, INL program director, told Nuclear Energy Insider.

In December, the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) and Battelle Energy Alliance to use part of NuScale’s planned 720 MW SMR plant in Idaho for research purposes.

The Carbon Free Power Project involves the construction of 12 NuScale 60-MW SMR modules at the DOE's Idaho National Laboratory (INL) by 2026-2017.

Under the MOU, one of the 60 MW modules will be ringfenced for the testing of non-electricity applications under the DOE's Joint Use Modular Plant (JUMP) research program. The DOE also plans to use a second module to supply power to INL facilities.

The remainder of the plant will supply power to UAMPS, which represents community-owned power networks located in Utah, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Wyoming.

The JUMP research program will examine a range of non-electricity applications, including thermal energy for industrial processes, desalination and hydrogen production, Shannon Bragg-Sitton, INL Systems Integration Manager and JUMP program director, told Nuclear Energy Insider.

Expanding on previous research by NuScale, INL will also create a platform which allows operators to respond to renewable energy intermittency and deploy non-electricity applications during times of excess power supply, she said.

The research aims to support multiple applications for SMR reactors and open up new markets for growth, Bragg-Sitton said.

“Nuclear power plants are traditionally used for electricity rather than to support the thermal energy needs of industrial processes, but this paradigm is shifting,” she said.

New markets

The JUMP program has been divided into three phases. In Phase 1 (2018-2021), INL will create a prioritized list of non-electric use applications for nuclear power plants, develop a cost estimate, and create an integrated modeling, testing, and licensing plan with NuScale, utilities, and other potential end-users.

In Phase 2 (2021 to 2026), INL will perform benchtop testing and scaled non-nuclear demonstration of different operational regimes. In Phase 3, INL will execute the R&D plan when the plant enters operations in around 2027.

Applications to be examined include the production of thermal energy for industrial processes, desalination of portable water from brackish water or seawater, and hydrogen production.

Heating applications are seen as a key selling point for SMRs, particularly as companies and governments strive to meet carbon reduction targets. Storage efficiency, power-heat switching capability and infrastructure readiness will all influence the competitiveness of these plants.

Hydrogen production would involve the diversion of steam from NuScale power modules. The hydrogen could be used for applications such as ammonia production, refining, steam manufacturing or in the growing fuel cell market.

                          US potential hydrogen demand

                                               (Click image to enlarge)

A 2014 study by NuScale and INL found that a 300 MW NuScale plant could supply the hydrogen demand of a mid-sized ammonia production plant, while a 600 MW plant could support a mid-sized refinery.

Hydrogen storage facilities could allow operators to optimize power revenues by switching to hydrogen production during times of low power demand or excess supply.

Test facility

INL is building a scaled integrated test facility for non-nuclear testing of industrial applications, Bragg-Sitton said.

This test facility will provide electrical signals from the nuclear reactor, input from solar photovoltaics and wind, as well as real time digital simulators to represent grid power systems, thermal and electrical energy storage, and end-user demand.

                     US power generation forecast by fuel type

                                                    (Click image to enlarge)

Source: Energy Information Administration's Annual Energy Outlook (January 2019).

The system will use electric heaters to represent the heat from a nuclear system and will include a thermal energy distribution system to move that heat to coupled applications.

The first application to be tested will be high temperature steam electrolysis to produce hydrogen, Bragg-Sitton told New Energy Update. A coupled chemical synthesis reactor will allow the hydrogen to be used as feedstock to produce a variety of industrial chemicals.

“The modular approach to the test facility will allow testing of multiple end users, either in parallel or in sequence,” she said.

Cutting-edge

The JUMP project will install advanced sensors and instrumentation to better understand flow regimes and temperatures. Advanced monitoring capabilities will allow scientists to test new instruments in a prototype environment without interrupting core electricity generation.

By entering at the development stage, INL can optimize the sensor installation process and maximize the research opportunities.

The deployment process would be far easier than for an operational nuclear plant, as modifications to the instrumentation plan and associated license amendments can be implemented before construction, Bragg-Sitton said.

“Installing additional instrumentation after a reactor is operational is much more challenging due to the radiation environment and the potential impact to the primary mission of an operational nuclear plant – which is to produce power for the grid. Additionally, once constructed, access to install instrumentation may be very limited," she said.

Once built, the facility could help operators accelerate the testing and regulatory approval of other new technologies.

INL is considering a range of advanced instrumentation for the facility.

Technologies such as fiber optics could prove "game-changing," Bragg-Sitton said.

"Fiber optics offer one opportunity that would provide vast amounts of data- [for example] hundreds of temperature measurements for a single penetration into the reactor vessel,” she said.

INL will monitor the latest sensor technologies and make a decision in the coming years.

"I’d say that everything is still on the table as an option," Bragg-Sitton said.

"This is an area rich in development and options a couple of years from now could be vastly different.”

By Jax Jacobsen