Conceptual drawing of B&W mPower™ nuclear reactor design. Illustration ©2010 Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Energy, Inc. All rights reserved.

The nuclear disaster in Japan, continued growth in world electricity demand (projected to rise 77% by 2030) and aging power-generation infrastructures led to this commentary on the best means to satisfy national and international energy hunger.

I attended a small modular reactor (SMR) seminar on March 28 and learned that America’s nuclear-power future appears healthier than expected. It is also headed in the right direction after decades of fear and loathing by a large part of the population. My unofficial count indicates there are 15 light-water designs, 10 liquid-metal-cooled, nine gas-cooled, three molten-salt-cooled and two fusion SMR power producers in development and in varying stages of commercialization.

Recall that an SMR was the original – the first nuclear power output of 45 KWe (kilowatts electric) was done at an Idaho laboratory on Dec. 20, 1951, and hundreds of Navy nuclear vessels have since covered the ocean surface and depths for over 50 years. The definition of an SMR is generally accepted as electric output of up to 300 MWe, but the great majority of those cited as in development are in the 10 to 100 MWe range with some field portable units as small as 1.5 MWe output.

What distinguishes the modern SMR is greater simplicity of design, economies of factory-built production and dramatically reduced siting costs. What differentiates manufacturing entities from former U.S.-dominated providers is that all have high foreign ownership. For example, GE-Hitachi is 50% Japanese owned; both Areva and Mitsubishi are 100% Japanese. Over half of those developing SMR concepts are American-owned firms. What this indicates is that participating American industry is concerned about an inhospitable tax and regulatory environment at home and that there’s clear recognition, as expressed by numerous at the seminar, that foreign markets are the preferred (and first) markets of choice.

There are many aspects of SMR use that are quite different from other sectors. Previously, all reactors were built on location, were large to achieve economies of scale in financing and operation, and great care was devoted to facility safety and security to prevent theft and improper proliferation of radioactive materials. Today, the trends are to make components in a factory to halve costs and to cut total construction time by half and possibly reduce labor costs eightfold. Reactors housed in a sealed containment can be small enough to ship on a railcar or truck. Installation at many proposed sites are underground with all waste materials stored within the containment during a typical 60-year life with refueling every two to 10 years.

The reasons for foreign markets being attractive to SMR makers are that many poor countries cannot afford the financing of the large, average-sized plant ($9-11 billion) and, further, that these countries do not have the needed grid infrastructure to distribute power from gigawatt power stations.

It is also expected that the anticipated capital cost of these SMRs will be about $5,000 per KWe, or several hundred million dollars, rather than billions for the monolithic power stations. Another overlooked feature of SMRs is that they are indeed “modular” and can be linked together to increase output as demand in a locale changes.

Inherent safety of SMR design has been a focus for developers to change the fuel cycles, to do everything from burning other “used fuels” and nuclear waste, and to limit the operating cycle so that “passive” control and cooling means are part of every plant. The object is for no SMR to ever run out of control.

An assessment made two years ago by the International Atomic Energy Agency projects that 40 to 100 SMRs will be in operation worldwide by 2030 with the target being 96 units. None of these are predicted to be in the U.S. even though more than 120,000 Americans are in the U.S. civil nuclear workforce and are part of a civilian nuclear power sector that is estimated to reach $500-740 billion during the next decade. For comparison’s sake, 441 large reactors now operate in 35 countries supplying 15% of the world’s electricity.

Of course, there is a lack of consensus about the positive outlook offered here. The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, for example, has a bleak view of future SMRs’ ability to assist electric supply problems. But it is my conviction that SMRs offer an improvement to power-supply needs and that both the U.S. and the world would benefit from what they have to offer.

As large consumers of electrical energy, it is in U.S. industry’s best interest to exercise rational support for the SMR avenues that are opening. It is also essential that industry advise the federal government to assist by allowing future opening of these avenues. IH

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