Early SMR player NuScale no longer a lone wolf

NuScale small modular reactor SMR nuclear DOE TVA B&W Westinghouse

By Wayne Barber, Chief News Analyst, GenerationHub

There was a time when NuScale Power and its Chief Technology Officer Jose Reyes didn’t have much company in their quest to commercially develop “small modular reactors” (SMRs).

“It’s a lonely, lonely trip” until some competitor shows up to “validate” your interest, NuScale Chief Commercial Officer Michael McGough said in a July interview with GenerationHub. McGough describes Reyes as a pioneer and early SMR leader. In the 1990s Reyes developed a “back of the napkin” design for small reactors that could largely be built in a factory, McGough said.

“There probably wouldn’t be a small modular reactor business,” without Jose Reyes, McGough said of his colleague a couple of weeks after NuScale submitted its July 1 application for the second round of Department of Energy (DOE) shared-cost funding for SMR development.

DOE announced its first SMR cost-sharing agreement in November 2012. A team led by Babcock & Wilcox (NYSE:BWC) affiliate mPower won the 2012 solicitation. The B&W group plans 2022 deployment for two 180-MW mPower units at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Clinch River site in Roane County, Tenn.

Others pursuing DOE funding to help develop small nuclear reactors include groups connected with Westinghouse Electric and Holtec International.

NuScale started out as DOE, university research project

NuScale grew out of a DOE research project in 2000 involving Idaho National Environment and Engineering Laboratory (INEEL) supported from Oregon State University (OSU).

When the DOE research project concluded in 2003, OSU scientists continued to pursue the design of a small nuclear plant that used natural circulation. Ultimately, the team at OSU built a one-third scale electrically-heated version of their plant as a test facility for this design.

NuScale is no longer a boutique firm. In 2011, the international vendor Fluor (NYSE:FLR) Corporation became the primary investor in NuScale.

NuScale notified the NRC in February 2008 of its intent to pursue design certification for its technology. “Among the SMR vendors, we have been working with NRC [on this technology] for the longest period of time,” Reyes told GenerationHub. NuScale is designing a 45-MWe module that can be operated either independently or as one module in a multi-module facility.

The first letter in SMR means "small” and NuScale is one of the few vendors who today offer an SMR prototype that is truly small, McGough said.

While NuScale SMRs are ideally suited for a six-pack or 12-pack configuration that could provide 270 MW or 540 MW of power generation in a central complex, the modules can offer any 45-MW increment. This makes it ideal for power growth in various pockets of the western United States, McGough said.

The 45-MW module is small enough to be assembled in a factory and shipped to the site where it will operate commercially. NuScale is currently negotiating with several potential manufacturers, McGough said.

Based on a 12-unit, 540-MW unit at $5,000/installed KW, a 540-MW pack could be built for $2.7bn. That’s still a lot of money but probably no more than the interest that a utility might spend on building a utility-scale nuclear plant of 1,000 MW or more these days, McGough said.

The DOE proposal was submitted July 1 and the department is expected to make an award Sept. 17, McGough said.

Importantly, DOE could announce not one but two awards when it makes its award this fall, McGough said.

After the TVA, B&W project at Clinch River, DOE is looking to establish the second SMRs in 2025. NuScale hopes to develop a pack of the 45-MW modules at the Idaho National Laboratory.

The September award date is a relatively quick turn-around for DOE but most of the bidders also probably made applications in the first round, McGough said. The NuScale commercial officer expects no more than six or seven applications were filed during this round.

NuScale is buoyed by the fact that DOE is especially interested in units that could withstand severe weather events.

In addition to having much of the control room underground, NuScale has technology to bring the reactor to safe shutdown status without using any AC or DC power, Reyes said.

The station could “basically shut itself down” without power or without adding additional water to safety pools, Reyes said.

Western states eye NuScale SMR project

Another important milestone for NuScale occurred July 1 when the company announced the Western Initiative for Nuclear. This is a broad a multi-western state collaboration to study the demonstration and deployment of a multi-module NuScale SMR plant at a site like the Idaho National Laboratory by 2024.

The deal was announced after the recent Western Governors Association meeting.

“The participating utilities, Energy Northwest and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, have assessed regional strategies for reducing long-term carbon emissions including replacing aging coal-fired units, as well as meeting forecasted energy demand growth, and concluded that SMR technology is a vitally important option,” said John Hopkins, chairman and CEO of NuScale Power.

The West typically doesn’t easily accommodate a new 1,000-MW plant either in load demand or grid stability. The NuScale 45-MW prototype there allows more flexible, gradual growth, McGough said.

Interestingly, while California has what amounts to a new nuclear moratorium on new construction, SMRs could wheel power into California, McGough said. California greenhouse gas policy restricts coal power from being imported into the state. “Our partners view California as an excellent market where we could wheel power from one of our plants,” McGough said.

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