This conceptual drawing shows the underground containment structure for two small modular reactors by Babcock & Wilcox, each generating 1,800 megawatts of power.(Photo: Babcock & Wilcox)
A new generation of nuclear reactor is scheduled to launch in the
United States within a decade, potentially transforming the U.S. nuclear
industry. But critics question its safety, given last year's meltdown
of Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant and recent flooding
from Superstorm Sandy.
These small modular reactors (SMRs), about a
third the physical size of traditional ones, would be portable and
built mostly in factories. They got a boost last week from the
Department of Energy, which announced it would pay up to half the cost
to design and license the first ones for the U.S. commercial market.
(DOE funding) lets us put our foot on the accelerator," says
Christopher Mowry of Babcock & Wilcox, an energy technology company
based in Charlotte, that's been working on the "mPower" design for
four years with the Tennessee Valley Authority and Bechtel
International. He plans to submit it to the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission in mid-2014, aiming for approval in 2017 and construction of
up to four reactors at TVA's Clinch River Site in Oak Ridge, Tenn., by
nuclear energy as "low carbon," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the
award is part of President Obama's push for a broad, "all-of-the-above"
energy strategy that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Chu said DOE
will accept funding requests from other companies developing small
The B&W one won't come cheap. Mowry expects
it will cost more than $1 billion to develop it, of which up to 75% will
be spent on design and licensing. Yet he and other advocates say SMRs
cost less to build, improve safety and offer flexibility. They say these
reactors could be made in U.S. factories and moved, or exported, to
remote or small sites that cannot support large reactors.
put them together like Legos on a job site," Mowry says. "The industry
likes building blocks of this size," he says, likening the heft of each
to a tanker truck. He expects a two-reactor plant generating a total of
360 megawatts of power to cost $1.5 billion to build - about a tenth of
the projected cost of a two-reactor, 2,000-megawatt plant the NRC
approved earlier this year for Georgia.
Another benefit, Mowry
says, is safety. He says it can operate for two weeks without outside
power and has fewer parts and pipes so is less likely to malfunction.
"Our reactor is totally underground," he says, adding it's not disturbed
by hurricanes and tornadoes.
Not all are convinced. "Putting
reactors underground could be a double-edged sword," says Edwin Lyman of
the Union of Concerned Scientists, a research group skeptical of
nuclear power. "Fukushima showed you don't want to flood your critical
equipment," he says, also pointing to the flooding that Sandy wreaked
this fall in New York and New Jersey.
Lyman says he places little
stock in paper simulations of how a reactor will work, saying there are
still huge gaps in understanding what went wrong with Fukushima's
light-water reactors.Though much smaller, B&W's reactor is also
light water, meaning it's cooled with ordinary water. It also generates
spent nuclear fuel like its larger counterparts.
"On an economic
basis, these reactors don't make sense," he says, adding they lack
economies of scale that reduce per-kilowatt cost. He says they wouldn't
be cost-competitive unless built in mass quantities - something that
won''t happen for the initial ones. As a result, he says, the B&W
project is a "very expensive experiment for us to be funding."
biggest challenge is financial," says Paul Genoa of the Nuclear Energy
Institute, an industry group that supports SMRs. He says natural gas
prices are low, the U.S. economy is still recovering from recession and
there's no federal tax on carbon dioxide emissions, which would favor
Still, he says, companies are racing to develop
several kinds of small reactors. Like B&W, NuScale Power,
Westinghouse and Holtec are designing light-water reactors. Gen4
Energy, Toshiba and General Electric Hitachi are looking at a liquid
metal-cooled version, while General Atomics and Pebble Bed Modular
Reactor are focusing on a high temperature gas-cooled reactor.
a start-up partially funded by software mogul Bill Gates, is developing
a larger, 500-megawatt, "traveling wave" reactor. Company CEO John
Gilleland says it's on track to deploy its first reactor in the 2020s.
says U.S.-based companies are furthest along in developing small
reactors, which he says many countries want. He says the U.S. has a
chance to recapture its lead in nuclear technology, adding, "'This race
is ours to lose."