By Brian Wheeler, Associate Editor
One of the “hottest” topics being discussed in the U.S. nuclear industry is the viability of deploying small modular reactors (SMR), those under 300 MW, into the nuclear fleet to help address environmental concerns while keeping up with the demand for power. The U.S. electricity demand is projected to increase by 28 percent by 2035. And annual CO2 emissions are projected to increase by 275 million metric tons, according to the Department of Energy.
The DOE has a goal to decrease 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and it expects that the goal can be met with the help of small modular reactors.
The concept is to install the small modular reactors to areas and applications underserved by large plants, or sites that may not be able to support a large unit. “But it is not a competition between large and small reactors,” said Paul Genoa, director of policy development at trade group the Nuclear Energy Institute.
But the idea of the SMR is not new in the U.S. The U.S. Navy has been using small reactors on vessels for over 50 years. Using this design in the energy industry, though, is new.
Currently, the U.S. does not currently have any SMRs producing commercial power, but vendors such as Babcock and Wilcox are moving forward towards design certification. Although, the NRC expects the first deployment of an SMR in the U.S. may not come until the 2018 to 2020 timeframe.
The distant timeframe is for numerous reasons. The plan is to build a SMR, start generating power and bring more online to form a larger nuclear plant, as needed. The SMRs are expected to be ready, as the DOE calls it, to “plug and play” when the reactor arrives on-site. Sounds simple? There are still obstacles that need to be defeated before the arrival of a commercial SMR. Licensing is the number one challenge at this point.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission established the Advanced Reactor Program in 2009 to focus on new licensing technologies. NRC is studying several pre-application reviews to identify possible technical issues, such as safety, security and emergency planning. The light water small reactors may be very similar to large designs, but they still must go through a separate licensing process. Vendors that engage the NRC early can resolve these technical issues. To address safety and security concerns, the small reactors will be built with post-9/11 safety concepts into the designs. NRC expects the first application submission by 2012.
The funds for the research and development of the SMR could pose a problem as well. But the Obama administration has requested $38.9 million for the 2011 fiscal year budget for the development of SMRs. The DOE supports public and private partnerships to advance mature SMR designs and supports “research and development activities to advance the understanding and demonstration of innovative reactor technologies and concepts.”
Among other goals, in FY2011 the DOE plans to “solicit, select and award project(s) with industry partners for cost-sharing the U.S. NRC review of design certification document for up to two of the most promising light water SMR concept(s) for near-term licensing and deployment” and “develop recommendations, in collaboration with NRC and industry, for changes in NRC policy, regulations or guidance to license and enable SMRs for deployment in the U.S.”
And as the general public’s interest in energy continues to grow, so does the interest in SMRs, said Philip Moor, vice president of consulting and management firm High Bridge Associates.
If approved, the funding towards the development of small reactors in the U.S. may play a part of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s estimate of between 49 to 97 SMRs built by 2030.
Utilities may have more interest in SMRs once the NRC gains more expertise and the uncertainty of deploying these reactors in the U.S. can be addressed. And if the regulator approves any of the designs for licensing, the U.S. may see a stronger nuclear renaissance take place. As we have seen, some operators have scaled back or completely pulled out on plans to build new large reactors due to the cost. The ability to construct these reactors in factories could lead to lower costs and shorter construction times. Of course, the upfront capital to develop and engineer the facility is going to be needed. But after that, the reactors can be built in the controlled environment in repetition to lower cost, which could in return lead to more clean energy on the grid.
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