The promise of modular reactors

Small is BIG

Salvatore Salamone | Jun 26, 2014


Small modular reactors with outputs in the double- to triple-digit megawatt range increasingly are being eyed as a way to drive down the costs, speed deployment and give a boost to nuclear as an energy source going forward.

About a half-dozen companies are trying to commercialize early-stage ideals and models spawned primarily in academic and government labs. These efforts are being driven by U.S. Department of Energy funding, which recently has backed two of these efforts. For this work to support the development of one or two U.S. light-water reactor designs, the department allocated about $452 million to be spent over five years.

Although small reactors have been used for decades to power nuclear submarines and to produce neutrons for medical and research activities, the envisioned modern small reactors for power generation are different altogether.

The concept is simple. Develop modular reactors with a standardized, approved and certified design. And then make deployment of these reactors less expensive by reducing siting costs and by reaping economies of scale via mass production.

Basic research into such small reactors has been going on for years at DOE-funded labs. Work has now progressed from the lab to address the practical matters to get the units into operation. This is reflected in DOE's funding of the field over the last several years.

Last December, the DOE announced an award to NuScale Power to support a new project to design, certify and help commercialize innovative small modular reactors in the United States. When the award was announced, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz noted the importance of the work in this field, saying, "Small modular reactors represent a new generation of safe, reliable, low-carbon nuclear energy technology and provide a strong opportunity for America to lead this emerging global industry."

The NuScale Power Module reactor is a small, scalable, pressurized water reactor that uses natural forces to operate and cool the plant. Each NuScale Power Module has a 160-megawatt thermal output and can generate 45 megawatts of electrical power.

Through a five-year cost-share agreement, the DOE will invest up to half of the total project cost, with the project's industry partners matching this investment. The funding for this work comes from the department's Small Modular Reactor Licensing Technical Support program.

The ultimate aim of this funded work is to help NuScale obtain Nuclear Regulatory Commission design certification and licensing, and achieve commercial operation around 2025. The DOE's cooperative agreements require that the reactors be built domestically.

Previously, in November 2012, the department awarded support to a project led by Babcock & Wilcox in partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority and Bechtel.  This five-year cost share agreement was a first-of-a-kind engineering, design certification and licensing for small modular reactors in the United States.  The award was given to develop the company's small modular reactor system, which is a scalable, modular, advanced light-water reactor in which the nuclear core and steam generators are contained in a single vessel.  The Babcock & Wilcox Generation III++ small modular reactor mPower system is designed to generate 180 megawatts of electricity.

These funding choices have directly or indirectly caused some changes in the market. In February, Westinghouse opted to scale back work on its 225-megawatt small modular reactor, saying it was reassessing its design certification application schedule. Also in February, TerraPower, a company backed by Bill Gates and others to develop a scalable, sustainable, emission-free and cost-competitive energy source, entered into an agreement with Babcock & Wilcox. That work will support the joint development of TerraPower's Generation IV traveling wave reactor.

Outside the United States, work in this arena is accelerating. In China, Chinergy has started work on a demonstration high-temperature pebble bed modular nuclear reactor project. The system will be a gas-cooled reactor with twin reactor modules of 100 megawatts, each driving a single 200-megawatt steam turbine. The goal is to start generating commercial electricity by the end of 2017.

In Europe, Urenco, a company that enriches uranium for use in nuclear power plants, has proposed the development of 5-to-10-megawatt, plug-and-play, inherently safe reactors. It is seeking government support for a prototype uranium-fueled battery that would run for five to 10 years before requiring refueling or servicing.

In addition to these efforts, there are other small modular reactor projects in various stages of development in Russia, Canada and India.

In other parts of the world, such as throughout Africa, organizations are considering small modular reactors as a way to generate electricity. Such reactors are seen as a way to meet exploding electricity demands in regions that have until now been without generation or distribution capacity. The small modular reactors would be able to meet localized power requirements.

Clearly, there is no one design or technology that is a clear favorite to be successful. The promising designs in development through all of these efforts will need to address engineering, costs and licensing challenges before small modular reactors can go into commercial production.


Published In: EnergyBiz Magazine May/June 2014

Related Topics


SMR May not be as viable as promoted – according to UCS

SMR May not be as viable as promoted – according to Union of Concerned Scientists in 2013

The union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) claim that It will be difficult for small reactors -- which are less than a third the size of a standard 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor -- to generate less expensive electricity and maintain the level of safety associated with large reactors.



The nuclear industry has touted small reactors as way to find new customers (i.e., utilities that cannot afford large reactors in the price range of $8 billion) in the wake of Fukushima and low natural gas prices. The Department of Energy (DOE) is now offering $452 million in matching grants to subsidize design and licensing costs and foresees deployment of a commercial small reactor by 2020. But USC says that nuclear power proponents pinning their hopes on small modular nuclear reactors will likely be disappointed

"Nuclear safety and security don't come cheap," said Edwin Lyman, UCS senior scientist and author of the report. "A utility that thinks it can have its own little nuclear reactor at a bargain-basement price may get exactly what it pays for: a plant more vulnerable to serious accidents and terrorist attacks."

Notwithstanding the above, DOE and Congress should re-visit Yucca Mountain as long-term depository for nuclear wastes  to resolve disposal issues and facilitate growth of the industry.

Richard W. Goodwin West Palm Beach FL 6/27/14


Factual Post - Salute

Question: Why is the DOE is giving about half a billion dollars in matching grants for yet more nuclear R&D, while not doing the same thing for new Solar R&D?

Answer: Because this program is just the happy face of yet more NUKE research, something that is already funded from plenty of BLACK money thanks to the DOE and who knows what other parts of the Government.

Half a billion dollars in matching grants would add a huge amount of rooftop solar that would immediately be providing 30+ years of reliable energy that the USA desperately needs, but of course the BIG utilities would have cried foul, since they want to keep US as their Energy Slaves.

Let someone else pay for the R&D while we install Solar instead.

Lets let some other Countries waste Billions on Nuclear R&D and then many years from now (if ever) something does pan out, we can do what our competitors have been doing for decades, license their technology; meanwhile the USA should be racing Germany, while creating great jobs, by going renewable ASAP.

The USA cannot afford to squander its limited resources,  instead we should be modeling the way by installing Solar (of all flavors) ASAP and creating jobs while we are at it!

Solar (of all flavors):

... Is faster to install,

... Costs less to install

... Is ready for 24/7 power

... Requires no decommissioning costs lasting decades

... Has no Nuclear RISK

Nuclear Pie in the $ky

SMR’s and similar forms of new nuclear generation are nowhere near either being developed and/or ready to be commercially deployed in the real world.

In fact R&D is now being reduced as US Energy companies and others World-wide realize that there are better ways to invest their resources that have none of the drawbacks to using nuclear.

Babcock & Wilcox scaling back work on small modular nuke program | SNL 
China has given its scientist until 2024 to prove Thorium will be economically viable, so the future of NEW nuclear is now at 15 years and counting downward…!

SMR discussion

There is no question that SMR's create new ways to deal with the cost problems of the major units, primarily the fact that we have done nothing to change construction costs or methods for large reactors since the 1870's but focusing on power is short-sighted. Ever since Andrew Kadak developed the PBMR design and DOE funded development of his design including the factory to build them and then abandoned him so he took it to China, the opportunities for reactors that can be easily installed, can be self-casking with the right coolant choice and can change the economics of everything from desalination, hydrogen production, pipeline pumping for petroleum and water, LNG production to distributed power and more have continued to grow and licensing is badly overdue. As someone who helped design, build and operate reactors from the past era, i hope we can do a much better job of managing this next era of nuclear to meet these new needs. for the increasingly positive audience we are seeing..