The headlines of the past few years continue: “Coal Plants Shutting Down,” “Natural Gas Generation Increasing,” “Zoning Shuts Out Wind.” It leads one to ask, “What is going on with nuclear?” (Yes, there is a very subtle shift in this opening. I added wind to the “Big Three.” So, for me, it is time to move into the era of the “Big Four”—coal, gas, nuclear and wind.)
The bad stories have large nuclear projects going under or moving forward astronomically over budget have obviously dominated the news of the past year or two. What has been lost in the negative news cycle is the ongoing positive progress of small scale nuclear technology.
Approval of the first small modular reactor (SMR) is maybe two years away. A recent U.S. Department of Energy study has put out recommendations that just might move this development along. Notable among the recommendations is making SMRs eligible for an existing federal nuclear loan program, allowing federal agencies to enter into power purchase agreements of up to 30 years with SMRs, adding nuclear power to federal definitions of “clean power” and encouraging states to support the technology by giving the reactors credit for zero-carbon energy produced.
SMRs are a type of nuclear fission reactor that are smaller than conventional reactors. They can be manufactured at a plant, are about the size of a train car, and are transported easily after construction. The small size allows for less on-site construction, increased containment efficiency and heightened nuclear materials security. Industry opinions vary, but generally any reactor producing less than 500 Megawatts (MW) is considered small (80 MW would operate the entire Cherryland system).
The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has not yet approved an SMR design. However, NuScale Power, LLC submitted the first certification application early last year. An NRC staff report on acceptance is expected in September 2020.
SMR units are forecasted to cost much less than a full-size commercial nuclear plant constructed from the ground up. The industry is particularly excited about the possibilities of the scalable technology. SMRs can be linked together to size a station as needed and as load in the area or region grows.
Safety is another big selling point of SMR technology. Each SMR uses less uranium fuel than a typical reactor. They also circulate cooling water through passive natural convection rather than pumps (less moving parts, less problem areas).
If NuScale Power gets approval in 2020, they have a contract with Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems to construct a 12 module/reactor, 570 MW plant on land owned by Idaho National Laboratory. The company is targeting a wholesale power cost of 6.5 cents per kwh. The plant could be up and running by 2026.
The enormous scope and scale of traditional nuclear energy has been its Achilles heel since the very beginning of the technology. The industry built behemoth plants in anticipation of growing loads that often didn’t materialize, leaving ratepayers with a difficult mortgage to pay off. Using Henry Ford’s simple manufacturing processes, we might soon be able to build units on a small scale that can be added to as growth actually occurs whenever it occurs. Small could really be huge in our energy future.