The U.S. Department of Energy has taken another “small” step toward shaking the nuclear industry out of its uninventive ways and towards innovative reactors that augur lower costs and improved operations and safety for a low CO2 future: It has granted up to $226 million in funding to an Oregon startup that is developing a “small modular reactor.”
The award to Corvallis, Oregon-based NuScale Power marks the second tranche of a $452 million program that DOE announced in March 2012. It comes a year after DOE’s first grant to North Carolina-based Babcock & Wilcox. That grant was reported at up to $225 million at the time, although DOE told me today that it has so far committed $101 million to the five-year B&W project through March 2014 and that it is currently reviewing the release of additional funds.
“Small modular reactors represent a new generation of safe, reliable, low-carbon nuclear energy technology,” U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in announcing the award to NuScale. “The Energy Department is committed to strengthening nuclear energy’s continuing important role in America’s low carbon future.”
Like B&W, the NuScale design calls for a scaled-down conventional reactor, fueled by solid uranium, cooled by ordinary water and operated in a pressurized environment. By virtue of its smaller size, the NuScale “Integral Pressurized Water Reactor” (IPWR) portends lower costs because in principle it could be factory-built in more of an assembly line manner than could large conventional reactors; the idea is to ship them to a site via truck, rail or barge for final assembly. The “integral” design fits a reactor and a steam generator in an 80-foot by 15-foot cylinder.
The small size would also allow users such as utilities to purchase new reactors in less expensive increments rather than paying billions of dollars up front for conventionally sized reactors, which reach well over a gigawatt in electrical capacity. At 45 megawatts electric, the NuScale reactor provides about 3 percent the output of a 1.3-GW reactor. NuScale’s “modular” design permits up to 12 of the pressurized water reactors in a plant, for a total capacity of 540 MW.
NuScale, founded in 2007, has designed the IPWR to sit underground, thus protecting it from attack. The IPWR deploys a “passive cooling” system that would release a pool of water from above the reactor in the event of an emergency, rather than rely on pumps to circulate water (failed auxiliary electricity systems knocked out cooling at Japan’s Fukushima reactor, leading to meltdowns there).
NuScale partner Energy Northwest, a Richland, Wash. company that produces power for utilities, said that NuScale could develop a commercial six-to-12-reactor plant on the site of Idaho National Laboratory by 2024, which Energy Northwest would have the right to operate. Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, a cooperative of government entities that pools electrical power resources, is also part of the scheme.
U.K. engineering stalwart Rolls Royce is also part of the NuScale small modular project. NuScale is majority owned by $27.6 billion engineering company Fluor Corp., based in Irving, Texas.
The presence of several companies in the NuScale project echoes the B&W small modular reactor venture which won the first tranche of DOE’s $452 million in SMR funding. B&W is working with U.S. construction firm Bechtel, and with federal power provider Tennessee Valley Authority. They hope to deploy four 180-MW reactors at TVA’s Clinch River, Tennessee site, via a joint venture called Generation mPower that is 90 percent owned by B&W and 10 percent by Bechtel.
That project took a peculiar turn recently, when B&W said it plans to sell 70 percent of its interest in mPower – including intellectual property.
A DOE spokeswoman said that DOE has so far committed $101 million to B&W through March, 2014. Possible further funding is currently under review, she said. B&W’s five-year federal funding period began in December, 2012. If DOE released more funds, the total would not exceed $226 million, the same five-year cap on the NuScale funding, which runs through Dec. 2018. In both cases, DOE would also be limited to funding no more than half of project costs, the spokeswoman said. She added that there will be no more grants under the $452 million Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA).
CAN’T TAKE THE HEAT
While the DOE grant helps to push U.S. nuclear in a new direction of smaller and less expensive reactors, it stopped short of endorsing altogether new reactor designs that would support much higher operating temperatures.
These so-called “fourth generation reactors” include liquid fuel reactors known as molten salt reactors, as well as solid fuel reactors using “pebble bed” and “prismatic” fuel structures rather than conventional rods. They would provide many additional advantages. For instance, they typically operate in unpressurized environments, which is a safety benefit over today’s pressurized reactors. They tend to leave less long-lived waste.
At higher temperatures they also generate electricity more efficiently, which lowers generating costs and would help nuclear compete in a market where natural gas prices are currently low. Unlike natural gas generation, nuclear power generation is carbon free, and the nuclear lifecycle is low-carbon.
And as Secretary Moniz himself noted last month, high temperature reactors could serve as sources of low-carbon heat for industrial processes and thus expand nuclear power beyond its role of generating electricity.
A number of high temperature reactor developers vied for the DOE award that went to NuScale, including San Diego’s General Atomics, and X-Energy Inc., a Greenbelt, Maryland-based company that is developing a pebble bed reactor based on older South Africa designs.
Stay tuned to the Weinberg site as we delve into some of these alternative reactor designs in our upcoming blog posts.
Photo is from NuScale via ChenectedAiche