New Projects, Nuclear, Reactors

Know Thine Opponent

Issue 12 and Volume 121.

ALL GOOD stories must have a hero and a villain. At least that’s what my high school English teacher taught me long ago. And while I generally agree with the sentiment for fiction writing, I don’t believe the concept is readily applicable to the nonfiction reality of the power generation industry. In a world where disparate types of generation are required to balance disparate needs – reliability, economics, environmental sustainability – the concept of hero versus villain seems a bit forced. They all can be heroes.

Still, as competitive pressures mount, we are seeing more of the “us versus them” perspective at play. In this reality, a clearer vision, appreciation, understanding, and fear of the opposition could benefit the nuclear power industry and drive needed change.

There is no denying that renewable energy growth, market inefficiencies, and legislative inaction constitute a large part of the threat to nuclear power. The increased competitiveness of natural gas-fired power, however, stands at or near the top of that threat list. And while it’s naïve to think the nuclear power industry can significantly marginalize natural gas (that ship has sailed), the industry can use the ascendancy of natural gas to define a target to aim at. Nuclear needs to aim squarely at the opposition – at getting within the economic orbit of natural gas.

I’ve written in the past about the Delivering the Nuclear Promise initiative and how the U.S. industry is using that effort to enhance the competitiveness of existing plants. In this column, I want to focus on new plants, specifically small modular reactors (SMRs).

An economic analysis performed by SMR Start – an industry group comprising many of the SMR vendors and a few of their potential customers – evaluates the market opportunities and cost-competitiveness of light water SMRs. Not surprisingly, the report paints an optimistic future: “The analysis of various policy and market uncertainties shows that there are many conditions and scenarios that could occur that would result in SMRs being comparable with the costs of a natural gas combined-cycle plant.” OK, so the SMR proponents have clearly named the enemy and are taking aim.

There are caveats, however. The report goes on to state: “By 2030, after the first few plants begin operation, SMRs would be cost-competitive without further private-public partnerships. For most scenarios, the costs of SMRs are within the range of natural gas plants, such that a utility could choose an SMR based on factors such as long-term price stability and fuel diversity.” So parity with natural gas remains the objective, but it might take a while to get there. OK, I can understand that: electricity demand is slack and may not create much of a market for SMRs until the 2030 time frame; the NRC will take some time to approve new SMR designs; and additional research, development, and demonstration will be needed to bring down the cost curve.

So while actions are taken to advance the technology and attack the cost curve, what else can be done to enhance the viability of SMRs? One way may be to look at alternate applications of SMR-based plants. NuScale is exploring at least five alternate applications for its NuScale Power Module (NPM): hydrogen production as a feedstock for fuel and chemicals manufacture; water desalination; hybrid wind/nuclear power production; carbon emissions reduction from oil refineries; and as a source of highly reliable power.

In a September article, World Nuclear News reported on a speech by NuScale Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Thomas Bergman at the World Nuclear Association Symposium, where he shared details on these alternate applications.

For water desalination, NuScale looked at integrating the NPM with each of the three primary desalination technologies – reverse osmosis, multi-stage flash desalination, and multi-effect desalination – and found promising deployment opportunities for each. For example, with reverse osmosis, a single NPM module could produce up to 340,000 cubic meters of potable water.

NuScale also conducted a study with Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) and Energy Northwest on the benefits of pairing SMRs with UAMPS’ 58 MW Horse Butte windfarm in Idaho. The analysis found that the NPM offers flexibility in adjusting to the variable output of the wind turbines: (1) one or more NPM modules could be taken offline during sustained periods of wind output; (2) reactor output could be modulated in one or more modules to balance windfarm output over intermediate time frames; and (3) steam could be dumped to the condenser to adjust SMR output over short time frames.

These concepts definitely warrant exploration, but they are still on the drawing board. SMRs have a high hill to climb. The natural gas industry will be pursuing cost reductions as well…lack of governmental support may hinder further development…market forces may simply dictate against SMR technology. Still, if SMRs can enable the nuclear power industry to flip many of its conventional disadvantages relative to natural gas – capital costs, construction schedule, flexibility – from negative to at least neutral (and maybe positive), the enemy will have done a great service.