Small modular nuclear reactors draw interest at ANS Annual Meeting

Interest in small modular reactors (SMR) continues to grow, as evident by the standing room only session held Wednesday, June 27 during the American Nuclear Society's (ANS) Annual Meeting in Chicago.

“SMRs have a lot of benefits to offer,” said Daniel Ingersoll with NuScale Power and session chair for Wednesday morning's session. “(SMRs) are very important to the future of nuclear energy.”

The Department of Energy (DOE) has said SMRs are about one-third the size of current nuclear power reactors and are designed to offer a host of safety, siting, construction and economic benefits. The DOE defines an SMR as 300 MWe or less.

The Electric Power Research Institute in February, along with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, released a study that stated the U.S. has the potential to generate 201 GW from SMRs. For the study, a small modular reactor was labeled a 350 MWe or less, which differs slightly from DOE's definition. The study stated, though, that 350 MWe was considered a reasonable bounding estimate of an initial SMR installation.

The interest in SMRs was not only apparent during the Wednesday session. On Tuesday, June 26, Russ Bell, director of New Plant Licensing at the Nuclear Energy Institute, discussed the development of SMRs during a global nuclear new build conference session.

“There is serious interest in SMRs from serious players,” he said. “When you see that kind of interest, there is something there.”

One of those players is Westinghouse Electric Co. Their interest level was clear as employees of Westinghouse presented four papers on the development of the Westinghouse SMR during Wednesday's session.

Westinghouse, manufacturer of the 1,100 MWe AP1000 plant, announced its plans to develop the greater-than 225 MWe, integral pressurized water reactor in February 2011. The Westinghouse SMR is not a “mini-AP1000” reactor, but Matthew Memmott with Westinghouse's Advanced Reactors Division said the company is focused on utilizing the company's experience as much as possible, as well as providing new insights.

“We are leveraging existing technology, albeit in a new way, but this gives us the advantage of being able to economically develop this design,” he said.

During the ANS conference this week, the possibility of replacing older coal-fired power plants with SMR technology has been brought up multiple times. Bell said it would be “great” to replace lost generation from expected coal plant retirements with nuclear generation.

The DOE's interest is also clear as it announced in January a draft Funding Opportunity Announcement to establish cost-shared agreements to support the design and licensing of SMRs.

“America's choice is clear,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu when the draft FOA was announced. “We can either develop the next generation of clean energy technologies, which will help create thousands of jobs and export opportunities here in America, or we can wait for other countries to take the lead.”

In March, the DOE announced that a total of $450 million will be made available to support first-of-its-kind engineering, design certification and licensing for up to two SME designs over five years. Through the cost-shared agreements, the DOE said it will solicit proposals for SMR projects that have the potential to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and achieve commercial operation by 2022. The agreements will provide a total investment of about $900 million, with at least 50 percent provided by private industry.

Joyce Connery, director for Nuclear Energy Policy at the National Security, on Tuesday said the DOE's award for SMRs in the U.S., which is currently being reviewed, could help enhance the U.S. supply chain.

But, the U.S. is “still going to need big nuclear,” she said. “And sustain the 104 reactors we have.”

To be fair, Westinghouse is not the only vendor or lab that is researching and developing SMR technology. Generation mPower, a joint venture between the Babcock & Wilcox Co. (NYSE: BWC) and Bechtel Corp., is developing a scalable, integral reactor capable of adding power generation in increments of 180 MWe. GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, using technology that was conceived in 1981, is developing the PRISM, or Power Reactor Innovative Small Modular, a 300 MWe next generation fast spectrum, sodium-cooled reactor. NuScale Power is developing a 45 MW light water SMR design with a combined containment vessel and reactor system. NuScale has said a plant using this design can utilize as many as 12 reactor to produce up to 540 MW of capacity, adding modules as power is needed. General Atomics for the past three years has been developing the 240 MWe Energy Multiplier Module, or EM2, a gas-cooled fast reactor that runs on spent fuel, plutonium or depleted uranium.

While this list may not include every technology provider seeking to develop an SMR design, it does show the interest is real, and the interest is expected to only grow.

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