The Progress of U.S. SMR Developments

By Sharryn Dotson, Editor

At a time when the U.S. nuclear industry is at a standstill, one technology was once touted as the "savior" of the industry: small modular reactors.

The reactors, also known as SMRs, are generally under 300 MW in capacity that are built with all of the major components in place instead of piecemeal like larger nuclear reactors, according to the World Nuclear Association. Most SMRs would also be located below-ground at plant sites, reducing the risks associated with terrorist attacks, natural disasters or other accidents that could occur with above-ground reactors.

One major difference between SMRs and larger reactors is that large-scale reactors have a well-established global market and supply chain, while SMRs are just entering the development stage in the U.S. That has caused problems for some companies developing SMRs. A few have even scaled back development, while one continues to persevere in developing and commercializing the technology.

An artist's rendering of the western initiative nuclear project
An artist's rendering of the western initiative nuclear project. All photos courtesy: Nuscale Power llc.

Babcock & Wilcox's Generation mPower

Babcock & Wilcox (B&W)'s Generation mPower SMR development unit and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) signed a contract in February 2013 to prepare and support the NRC's review of a Construction Permit Application for two 180-MW SMRs at TVA's Clinch River site in Tennessee. In April 2013, Generation mPower, along with project partners TVA and B&W, won the first round of DOE's cost-sharing initiative. DOE allocated $79 million to be immediately available in the first year of the program, with up to $226 million available in total. DOE then gave an additional $20.5 million in funding toward the SMR development that August. The project is scheduled for completion by 2021.

In November 2013, Generation mPower announced that it was having trouble attracting investors for its venture and was looking to sell up to 70 percent of mPower by mid-2014. B&W said it would keep a 20 percent stake and joint owner Bechtel would still own 10 percent.

Earlier in April, B&W said it would reduce spending on the design process and would work with the DOE to develop a mutually agreeable plan including program milestones for continuing the cost-sharing program. On April 14, B&W told the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission that Generation mPower President & CEO Christofer M. Mowry was no longer employed by the SMR unit and was replaced by William Fox III, according to GenerationHub. B&W announced that same day that it would restructure its mPower program to focus on technological development of the SMR.

According to a May 12 article in the Charlotte Business Journal, Babcock & Wilcox started actions to reduce spending on the mPower unit by approximately $15 million a year, but vowed it would continue working with the DOE on the cost-sharing agreement. B&W CEO Jim Ferland said in the article that the company has not abandoned its SMR development nor the Generation mPower business.

B&W declined comment for this story.


Westinghouse Electric announced in February 2014 that it would scale back development of its 225-MW SMR design to focus more on its booming global AP1000 market. Though some parts of development have been cut, Westinghouse said a team continues to work on the SMR in case market conditions pick up in the near future.

"The Westinghouse need to accelerate deployment of the SMR isn't as high as it was two years ago, due to a reduction in demand by U.S. utilities based on flat electricity growth and low natural gas prices," Sheila Holt, public relations manager with Westinghouse Electric, said in an emailed statement. "However, a team of Westinghouse engineers and business staff remains assigned and committed to the SMR program to ensure that the Westinghouse SMR product investment is protected and available for additional investment and licensing completion when a customer is ready to purchase an SMR. Westinghouse will remain a key force in the SMR sector, retaining superior market position for SMR development."

Westinghouse President and CEO Danny Roderick said in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette there is no customer base for SMRs and that the company did not want to "get ahead of the market."

"Simply put, an investment in SMR nuclear technology does not compare favorably right now with other options currently available in the marketplace, and the need to accelerate deployment of the SMR is not as compelling as it was only two years ago," Roderick said.

Westinghouse has 12 AP1000 reactors under construction in Korea, China and the U.S. and more planned in Europe.

a cutaway of nuscale's 45-mw smr.
a cutaway of nuscale's 45-mw smr.

Nuscale Power

The NuScale Power LLC 45 MW SMR technology has been in development by founder Dr. Jose Reyes since the 1990s, said Mike McGough, chief commercial officer with NuScale Power. The company on May 28 signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for the second round of funding to support the development, licensing and commercialization of its SMR technology. The cost-sharing deal will provide NuScale with up to $217 million over five years to help the company with its SMR design. McGough said NuScale has already spent over $200 million of their own money just on design and licensing costs.

McGough said NuScale has been working with the NRC since April 2008 and plans to submit the design certification application in 2016. The NRC takes 39 months to review the application and charges $279 per hour to do so. Once the application is approved and a combined construction and operating license is received, construction is expected to take an additional three years until completion, with commercial operation expected by 2023.

"Designing and licensing an SMR costs about $1 billion," McGough said. "It is a very long and very expensive process."

The company has also been spending money on employees. NuScale has about 300 people working on the SMR design and plans to have 450 by this time in 2015, McGough said. That includes opening a new operation and engineering center in Charlotte. McGough said there was a purpose in picking that location.

"We were surprised by the announcement of Babcock & Wilcox that they were scaling back their operations," McGough said. "When 200 SMR people were given notice that their jobs will be terminated and we're looking to hire, plus our parent company already has an office in Charlotte, we said 'let's make it easy for those people.' The second part of the reason is that one of our prospective customers, Duke Energy, is based in Charlotte."

Duke Energy, along with 23 other large utilities, is part of NuScale's Advisory Board. All of those utilities have expressed an interest in developing NuScale SMR projects.

"Duke wrote a letter on our behalf to (DOE) Secretary (Ernest) Moniz asking that we be considered for the funding," McGough said. "They have been supportive of the NuScale design for several years now."

NuScale is currently working on its first project, the Western Initiative for Nuclear (WIN), in partnership with the Utah Associated Municipal Supply System consortium and Energy Northwest. The project is scheduled to begin operations in 2023 in Idaho. It is in the site selection phase, but in order to meet certain site requirements and conditions, the plant will more than likely be sited at the Idaho National Laboratory, McGough said.

NuScale's progress is in sharp contrast with B&W and Westinghouse, and McGough said several factors are behind that, including future needs for nuclear and the differences in the SMR designs.

"NuScale's design is significantly different than other designs, which are essentially a smaller version of large reactors, and both the Westinghouse and Babcock & Wilcox designs require a field-built containment. The NuScale design has a factory manufactured containment vessel which houses the reactor vessel and is called the NuScale Power Module and is shipped to the site," McGough said. "In addition, the other designs have reactor coolant pumps while the NuScale design eliminates the need for RCP's by the use of natural circulation."

McGough said that because of NuScale's use of natural circulation, and the fact that the power modules are installed and operated while residing in an 8-million gallon common pool of water that serves as the ultimate heat sink, the plant design is set to be immune to a Fukushima-type power loss event. "Our reactor will shut itself down and cool itself off without any operator intervention, no additional water other than the inventory of the common pool and no source of AC or DC power," McGough said. "Other SMRs have a coping time of only a few days before someone will have to take actions to prevent fuel damage."

Another difference is that NuScale has a growing level of customer interest. "Babcock & Wilcox made the statement that they didn't see a market for their reactor. And their lead customer TVA has made no commitment to developing new nuclear projects for several years after Watts Bar 2 is completed," McGough said. "We also thought it was surprising that Westinghouse President Danny Roderick said there is no market for their SMR product only two weeks after the conclusion of the DOE funding competition."

McGough said he believes there will also be an emerging SMR market in Japan with utilities that want to replace retired units that shut down after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident. "Over time, there will be a re-establishment of new nuclear construction in Japan and the reactors must be the types that can withstand another Fukushima-type event without resulting in the same kind of damage to the environment."

McGough said he believes SMRs, NuScale's in particular, have a future.

"Although I can't comment on what other companies may believe the market to be for their SMR products. I can tell you there is a significant market for our product."

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