Can Small Be Big?

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.

By |2018-10-02T18:59:31-04:00August 27th, 2018|Manager's Column, Michigan Country Lines|21 Comments

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  1. bob carstens September 4, 2018 at 10:13 am - Reply

    I have a friend that moved to Hawaii recently. He lived on Bunkerhill Rd. in Acme Twp. His occupation here was as an Electrician. He very much supports Hawaii’s choice of Solar as the way to obtain all the electricity for Hawaii. My impression is that the plan in Hawaii is to have solar panels on all the homes/buildings there. It is interesting to me that you seem to have totally ignored the solar option for obtaining electricity ….and I am wondering why …..I have seen impressive solar arrays in the yards of homes in Acme township and wonder about their efficacy. I also have seen news alerts recently about the shutdown of failing nuclear plants in Ohio and the considerable cost that accompany shutdowns …. so I am wondering about this focus on 4-H and other non-electricity related matters instead of providing more complete information about the sustainability of our present recent choice of obtaining electric power via nuclear power plants in Ohio. My daughters raised goats and rabbits and submitted impressive entomology collections to the 4-H programs as did my students at Arnell Engstrom School, however more complete information regarding nuclear powered generation that is proven to be safe and costs less than what solar, wind or water can provide would be helpful and should likely be your focus

    • Tony Anderson September 4, 2018 at 11:36 am - Reply

      The sun in Hawaii is clearly much different than the sun in Michigan. From the solar we have in Michigan, we know that it can produce electricity about 25% of the time on a year round basis. This simply isn’t good enough nor is it a realistic solution for our long term needs. Large scale nuclear clearly has had its problems. The point of my article was to create hope that maybe we can do nuclear at a smaller scale better and at competitive prices as well.

      • Jeff Bihlman September 5, 2018 at 1:12 am - Reply

        What I’m having a hard time swallowing is that you’ve included coal in your big four. Are you kidding me? I’m a fan of nuclear, but coal is absolutely the wrong answer for any sustainable power generation looking forward. I applaud the solar panel arrays I see going up on US 31 in Grawn. As you may know, Germany has a very similar climate to Michigan and is the leading solar generator in the world, or was a few years ago.

        • Tony Anderson September 5, 2018 at 9:35 am - Reply

          No, not kidding at all. Check out the numbers nationally and globally. As long as their is opposition to nuclear, people opposed to looking at windmills, a growing resistance to covering arable land with solar panels, coal will continue to be in the big 4. Too many people are saying no to alternatives because the one specific fuel they believe in will save us all (their opinion not mine). Thus, coal is left to prop up the grid. It’s share will decline but it will not be removed from the big 4 anytime soon. Cherryland is 56% carbon free. We would be 68% if not for local opposition that turned down a wind farm in eastern Michigan. Too many environmental groups who are all talk, no action and not getting into the zoning and planning battles.

  2. Victoria Mattingly September 4, 2018 at 10:30 am - Reply

    This article is interesting and useful. The thing that you don’t explain is the rest of the story. What are the side effects of this technology? Please explain how much waste product there is and what you do with it. What are the dangers involved? Part of the resistance to large nuclear power plants is because of the nuclear waste they generate. How do these smaller units differ? Where will the waste go?

    • Tony Anderson September 4, 2018 at 11:32 am - Reply

      I don’t have data on the waste product. Obviously, there will be waste that will require proper handling. The waste will have to be taken care of in the same manner as the waste from bigger plants. Because of the waste, nuclear may not be the perfect solution but if we are going to reduce CO2, nuclear has to be part of the solution. To think that we can reduce CO2 without nuclear energy is not realistic.

  3. David Degeneffe September 4, 2018 at 11:50 am - Reply

    I’ve read some about thorium reactors. They tend to be small scale designs and claim to offer better safety than typical uranium based fission reactors. Do you have any data or thoughts on thorium as an emerging technology?

    • Tony Anderson September 4, 2018 at 11:56 am - Reply

      I’m sorry but I don’t have any data on thorium reactors. I will have to do some research.

  4. Steven Holl September 4, 2018 at 12:23 pm - Reply

    I agree that small scale fission is promising and needed. Thanks for the update. I also think solar needs to be fully deployed as well.

    • Tony Anderson September 4, 2018 at 12:26 pm - Reply

      We all need to remember that solar in Michigan only produces energy 25% of the time when you look at a full calendar year. While we can certainly deploy more solar and I expect we will, we will never be able to count on it completely.

  5. Harold Lassers September 4, 2018 at 1:47 pm - Reply

    We COOP members must resist deployment of new nuclear plants until we have a viable plan for the waste. If Michigan wants nuclear power then Michigan residents should willing to embrace archival storing of the waste within the state. A safe solution has yet to be agreed upon. All other states have fought against taking waste from other states. An article on nuclear power that does not include the waste issue ignores the real problem with nuclear power.

    We also need to see the ability of a small nuclear plant to successfully maintain itself with passive cooling, a mature fuel load, and foreseeable damage. That testing is worth doing but will take some time. Testing and maintaining the safety of a small reactor requires diligent government regulation and monitoring. I am not sure we live in a time when the country has the will to engage in diligent government regulation, the mood of the country seems to be quite the opposite.

    • Tony Anderson September 4, 2018 at 2:14 pm - Reply

      You make valid points. The point of the article is simply to get people thinking about a future that produces less CO2. Our region is growing and the need of electricity will grow with it. I am happy to keep building natural gas plants to serve this growing load. This doesn’t solve the CO2 problem however. Michigan’s wind and solar production will not get us to a 100% carbon free status.

  6. Janette Ransom September 4, 2018 at 2:03 pm - Reply

    Anything nuclear should not be viewed as an option because of the radioactive waste it creates and the possibility of a nuclear meltdown. If one of these is constructed in Michigan, it should NOT be located on any of the Great Lakes. Logic and common sense tell me that should not even be a consideration, but look at Michigan’s history with locating nuclear power plants on the Great Lakes.

    • Tony Anderson September 4, 2018 at 2:10 pm - Reply

      I agree and would never put a nuclear plant on the shores of Lake Michigan. I am simply trying to get people to think about the future and how we can actually produce energy that is carbon free. Wind and solar can’t do it alone. We need some type of nuclear energy in our future.

  7. Glenn color September 4, 2018 at 5:58 pm - Reply

    Interestingly enough, I just read an article about how nuclear power is moving forward in China and Russia in a big way, including smaller facilities (some on moving barges to go where needed), and how the US has lagged behind in this technology in a big way.

    Another point to consider is that Thorium power is apparently far safer, but the reason it was not deployed in the 1950’s was so that uranium could be enriched to make bombs.

    If I am not mistaken, China has taken the Thorium technology to the next level and could have a safe power station up and running soon – essentially eliminating the danger of radioactive waste products.

    • Tony Anderson September 4, 2018 at 7:51 pm - Reply

      Good stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  8. paul boyle September 4, 2018 at 6:57 pm - Reply

    How many nuclear plants are already on the shores of the great lakes..? Few,at least Anyone realize that?

  9. dave September 5, 2018 at 12:50 am - Reply

    I do not agree with nuclear power, because of its danger and its history. We are poor caretakers of the dangerous and deadly, as evinced throughout history. Interesting that memories are so short that No one so far has mentioned Fukushima, which as far as I know is the latest reported nuclear disaster, and is still happening! One estimate states that it will still be happening for at least another 40 years. In other words, longer than a generation!
    Your vague and inconclusive answer to nuclear disposal belies the general consensus of all powercrats: out of sight, out of mind. How many states refuse waste from other places? Fie upon your recommendations! We should be moving AWAY from fossil and nuclear fuels, not further in! How dare you ignore past history, and the livelihood and well-being of myself, my family, my community, my planet, for now and for the future!

    • Tony Anderson September 5, 2018 at 9:40 am - Reply

      My nuclear comments do consider the well being of my family and yours. Wind and solar can not get us to a carbon free world on their own. They will need some 24/7/365 help. That is coal, natural gas or nuclear energy. 2 of this 3 involve fossil fuels. Batteries are not ready and will not be affordable anytime soon. Everyone points out disasters and calamities in other countries because there are not any to point to in the United States. Three Mile Island? Well, the safety procedures in place did their job. I believe in America and our ability to store the fuel properly.

  10. Craig A. Rolfe September 6, 2018 at 7:59 pm - Reply

    Tony, the article was informative, and I enjoyed it. Please know all Cherryland electricity users are not “greenie-weenies” convinced the sky is falling, and that humankind is a scourge on the planet. I’m confident the vast majority of your users expect their power provider to obtain all the electricity for their needs, present and future, from generating sources that produce power the most efficiently/economically, and without regard for political considerations. Tell a senior citizen on a fixed income they must pay more for their electricity than is dictated by economics, because someone who doesn’t know their hind end from a lump of coal nevertheless thinks they know what’s best for them—-and of course “the planet”.

    • Tony Anderson September 7, 2018 at 12:45 am - Reply

      Thank you for taking time to comment. – ta

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