It was May 2011 when this column first addressed SMRs (small modular reactors) as an electricity source to supplement growing world demands. Over the last decade, global coal consumption for electricity generation has increased more than growth in oil, gas-fueled, hydro and nuclear power combined and is predicted to continue for decades in spite of enviro-motionalist’s passions.

    Applications for SMRs, however, do exist.

 1.) Base load generation in areas with limited distribution grid capacity

2.)  Power supply in remote locations

3.)  Water desalination (While there are 15,000 plants running today, there are over 1 billion people without potable water. Just 1 MWe can produce 5,000 cubic meters per day.)

 4.) Process heat for industries such as oil recovery, refining and biomass conversion to food and fuel. 

There appears to be a shift in SMR interest, which was evident at a Washington “Infocast” conference that heralded progress. Results, though, still seem 20 years in our future. 

    For perspective, there are 127,000 operating world power plants, 97.2% of which are less than 300 MWe, but 25% are fossil-fuel plants more than 30 years old. SMRs are defined as being under 300 MWe.  Nuclear plants of all sizes provide 6.3% of world energy needs from 439 reactors – about 13.5% of electricity consumed – operate in 31 countries and drive over 150 naval vessels. Know that nuclear plants have a better safety record (lives lost per unit of electric power delivered) than any other power source worldwide. For comparison, coal- and gas-fired utilities in the U.S. in 2012 are an $85 billion enterprise versus $18 billion for nuclear. Remember that SMRs come with a variety of technical approaches – provides everything you’ll ever need or want to know about SMRs. 

    A change for the industry happened this year. While incomplete, it sets a different tone. The Department of Energy solicited industry offers in January 2012 and received four on May 21. The DOE claims it will select two for a $452 million grant – matched by industry and spent over the next five years – to define two SMR designs through the demonstration and regulatory process by 2022. Offers were submitted by Westinghouse Electric, Babcock & Wilcox, Holtec International Inc. and NuScale Power LLC. All are small light-water reactors.

    The current Congressional sequestration threat and budget debacle has stalled this process and the $67 million fiscal 2012 commitment. Legislation was pending in the 112th Congress (S.512, Nuclear Power 2021 Act with companion bill HR.1808 and S.1067, Nuclear Energy Research Initiative Improvement Act) to authorize and fund work but died at the close of the session. All will certainly be reintroduced in the new Congress beginning in January.     

    Of greater significance are agreements signed by the DOE in March 2012 with three separate companies interested in constructing demonstration SMRs, all located at the DOE’s South Carolina Savannah River site. One 25-MWe fast reactor unit is offered by Hyperion; a 140-MWe unit by Holtec and a 45-MWe unit by NuScale are both pressurized-water reactors (PWR). The Hyperion unit is unique in that it is about 1.5 meters in diameter, resides in a 100-foot-diameter hole in the earth, is refueled every seven to 10 years with the total residual waste (about the size of a softball) stored in the containment vessel, is mostly factory made and is expected to cost about $25 million.

    “For a community of 10,000 households, that is a very affordable $2,500 per home,” according to John Deal, CEO of Hyperion. This design is the product of retired Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Otis Peterson and associates from that New Mexico facility. Hyperion has orders for 100 of the SMR units and says it intends to produce 4,000 of these 25-MWe modules between 2013 and 2023, with major markets being outside the U.S. Many utilities are reportedly forming partnerships with these reactor designers and makers to prepare for future construction.

    To search and find some worthy accomplishment from the last Congress is hard and, in my mind, a fool’s errand. What is described here is as close as we can get. America seems to have an innovative and stable SMR industry. Politicians must reject temptations to inject subsidies and incorrect controls into this building process. Furthermore, aid in defining and assisting efficient and predictable regulatory pathways for these new SMR certifications is essential.

    Our country, and the world, needs improved and efficient sources of electric energy that are affordable and robust. The nation now seems on the right track. IH


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