Small modular reactors are not a substitute for the familiar 1,000-plus-megawatt reactors, says Tennessee Valley Authority Chief Operating Officer William McCollum, any more than the iPad is a substitute for a laptop computer or a cell phone. Instead, he said, SMRs, like iPads, are creating a whole new niche for nuclear.

Supporters see them as safer than the big plants, cheaper, requiring less time and up-front investment to build, and, longer term, pioneering in nuclear nonproliferation and spent fuel disposal technology. Some designs have the potential to bring electricity to isolated and water-short communities.

SMRs are attracting iPad-levels of attention in nuclear circles, with support from both government and industry. With today’s low natural gas prices and no price on carbon, say supporters, they’ll need that help to become market-competitive.

Planning is Underway

The Department of Energy has two cost-sharing programs, one that helps developed technology get licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and one to help newer technologies prove their concepts by building prototypes at DOE’s Savannah River site. DOE just announced three partnerships for the latter program, with Hyperion Power Generation, Holtec International’s SMR subsidiary, and NuScale Power.

The existing technology program is also moving forward. Assistant Energy Secretary for Nuclear Energy Peter Lyons told a Bipartisan Policy Center session in Washington DC March 16, that he expects to begin seeking candidates at the end of the month for a five-year, $452 million cost-share that would get one or two SMR designs licensed and ready for deployment.

TVA is already looking to move into the SMR niche. The company has an agreement with Generation mPower – a joint venture of Babcock & Wilcox and Bechtel. Together they plan to install up to six of GmP’s 125- to 180-MW modules at TVA’s Clinch River site, said TVA Vice President of Nuclear Generation Jack Bailey at an NRC conference March 14.

Regulatory and Technical Factors Will Be Critical

Bailey said NRC has “gone well ahead of everyone else” in preparing to evaluate the new type of reactor. Lyons – a former NRC Commissioner – said he hopes NRC will be “open-minded” in considering how conventional requirements like staffing, emergency planning, and decommissioning funding should be tailored to SMRs.

Those decisions will be critical to SMRs’ ability to compete. The industry turned to ever-larger reactors in the past because they offered economies of scale.

Ali Azad, CEO of GmP, told the NRC conference that the modules can’t exceed 13 feet in diameter because factory-assembled units must be rail-shippable to sites. Modules would be placed in an underground structure, and replaced when their four-year fuel cycle is completed.

Factory replication is crucial to project economics, with output of at least eight modules a year, he said. The small scale means all forging can be done in North American factories, unlike conventional nuclear plants whose large parts must be forged overseas.

SMRs will be built within three years and can be installed in increments, making them far easier to fund than the $8-10 billion now needed over 4-5 years for a large plant, supporters say.

Coal and Natural Gas Play a Role

Lyons said SMRs, generally under 300 MW, are the right size to replace coal plants being shut because of age and inability to meet modern pollution standards. However, under the Environmental Protection Agency’s deadlines, most of those plants will be shut by 2017, and the SMRs that DOE will assist won’t be ready to deploy before the early 2020s.

Former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici, a Republican, told the BPC that the government needs to support continued nuclear research now, when cheap natural gas makes other energies non-competitive.

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Warren Miller, a former DOE nuclear energy secretary, noted that many other nations are exploring SMRs, with China in the lead. Because of nonproliferation concerns, nuclear units can’t be traded like solar panels, he said, making it “critical we have a strong presence in this field.”