Small modular nuclear reactor development gets a boost from Obama administration

By Dorothy Davis

Under designations for the U.S. Department of Energy, the Obama administration’s 2012 budget proposal would bolster funding for research and development of new nuclear technologies such as small modular reactors (SMRs), as well as nearly triple government loan guarantees for new nuclear power plant construction.

The Department of Energy allocation within the 2012 budge released today includes a $67 million plan to develop designs for nuclear SMRs and requests for an additional $36 billion in loan guarantees to aid utilities in constructing new nuclear reactors.

Initially, development of the SMRs would support the Department of Energy in meeting the current administration’s clean-energy standard which requires federal agencies to reduce their carbon footprint by at least 28 percent by 2020.

Longer-term goals for the development of SMRs are to create assembly-ready scalable nuclear power plants that allow utilities to create and obtain power-generating capacity in smaller increments and thus at a fraction of the cost of standard nuclear power developments.

The SMRs would be owned by a utility and require approximately $500 million over five years to cover costs of design and approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 

To offset this hefty initial investment the federal government as a part of its proposed plan would pay half of those costs up front and sign a deal to purchase power from the utility that would develop, own and operate the SMRs. This would guarantee revenue for the utility and ease the burden of financing research and development of the project.

A leading candidate to receive electricity from such a project is the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, run by the Energy Department and served by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

If approved by Congress the Department of Energy would then move forward with extending an invitation to companies to apply for assistance. At the forefront would be companies such as Babcock & Wilcox, NuScale, Westinghouse and Holtec all of which are currently engaged in nuclear developments related to small scale reactors.

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