Chalk up a small victory for alternative nuclear power in the West. The U.S. Department of Energy will help North Carolina-based Babcock & Wilcox develop and build a “small modular reactor.”
DOE announced recently that it had awarded funding to a B&W-led group that also includes federally owned electricity provider the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and U.S. construction firm Bechtel Corp.
TVA is applying for a license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to deploy up to 4 of B&W’s 180-megawatt mPower reactors at TVA’s Clinch River site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the project is based.
In announcing the decision, Energy Secretary Steve Chu issued an assurance that nuclear has a solid place in the government’s plans for a low carbon future – an assertion that many nuclear supporters would welcome, but with an “I’ll believe more when I see more” shrug.
“The Obama Administration continues to believe that low-carbon nuclear energy has an important role to play in America’s energy future,” said Chu. “Restarting the nation’s nuclear industry and advancing small modular reactor technologies will help create new jobs and export opportunities for American workers and businesses, and ensure we continue to take an all-of-the-above approach to American energy production.”
Small modular reactors would provide alternatives to large gigawatt-plus nuclear reactors, allowing utilities or private users to add nuclear capacity without having to spend many billions of dollars in upfront costs associated with conventional behemoth reactors.
They could also provide low cost power in remote areas – where expensive and CO2-heavy diesel generators are often used – and can be an effective heat and electricity source for industrial operations. In principle they can be factory-made and transported by truck. They still have some heft though - a New York times blog on B&W’s plans refers to mPower’s “towering metal shell.”
B&W’s mPower and other SMRs that DOE evaluated are essentially scaled down versions of conventional water cooled, solid fuel uranium reactors.
As such, they are not as pronounced a departure from traditional nuclear as are other designs that we track here at Weinberg, such as liquid molten salt reactors, pebble bed reactors and fast neutron reactors. Those typically fit the “modular” form factor and in many instances will deploy thorium fuel, portending safer and more efficient nuclear operations than with uranium fuel.
South Africa’s Steenkampskraal Thorium Ltd, for instance, is developing a 35-megawatt (electric) pebble bed reactor. Flibe Energy in Huntsville, Alabama, also has modular sizes in mind for its liquid thorium molten salt reactor.
MORE MODULAR FUNDS WILL COME
Neither DOE nor B&W would disclose the amount of funding DOE is providing. Various published reports including in the Charlotte Business Journal (Charlotte, North Carolina) and Oilprice.com pegged it at $225 million.
“Through a five-year cost-share agreement, the Energy Department will invest up to half of the total project cost, with the project’s industry partners matching this investment by at least one-to-one,” DOE’s press release states. “The specific total will be negotiated between the Energy Department and Babcock & Wilcox.”
The award was part of a project to fund $450 million of SMR development that DOE announced last March, so the $225 million would represent half of that programme.
The New York Times had a more modest sense of the funding, noting, “At one point it (DOE) anticipated a $452 million program over five years, but so far Congress has appropriated only $67 million. The department is asking for another $65 million for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1. Also, the department has not said how much it was providing to Babcock & Wilcox.”
B&W CEO James Ferland welcomed the funding. “With this public-private partnership, the DOE is providing important national leadership for America in the global pursuit of SMR technology,” he said. “This partnership is essential to reestablishing our nation’s international competitiveness in the nuclear energy industry, as well as enhancing U.S. manufacturing infrastructure and energy independence. “
The company wasted no time in demonstrating momentum. About a week after winning the funding, it announced it had contracted Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based Lehigh Heavy Forge Corp. to fabricate the shell.
WESTINGHOUSE A CONTENDER
B&W is believed to have beaten rivals Westinghouse and NuScale for the award. DOE said it still plans to fund other SMR projects. Westinghouse is developing an SMR that is a smaller version of its large AP1000 “passively cooled” reactor.
But Westinghouse is also partnering with DOE and China on the development of alternative design reactors that can run on thorium or uranium.
The award to B&W is an encouraging sign that DOE is investing outside the traditional nuclear box. It would be no small development if DOE were to next apply some of its $450 million modular budget to altogether different reactor designs, not just reduced-sized ones.
Photo: Nancy Pierce via Charlotte Business Journal