Saturday, July 04, 2009
Small Reactors & a Nuclear Vacation
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I am about to head out on a little adventure that I’ll tell you more about in a few minutes. My bags are packed and I need to be out the door in 55 minutes.
We may be seeing the early beginnings of a fundamental shift in the commercial nuclear industry away from the one-size-fits-all approach where bigger is better. In the last few weeks there have been some interesting developments associated with small reactors and at the same time more large reactor projects are being put on hold.
About two weeks ago I told you about the announcement by B&W that they have designed a small modular reactor called the mPower reactor that will be factory built and shipped by rail to assembly sites. There are several other companies and partnerships developing a variety of small reactor designs: the Chinese and South Africans are working on Pebble Bed Modular Reactors; GE Hitachi is working on the Prism reactor, and start-ups Hyperion and NuScale have their own small reactor designs well underway. Even Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates is getting into the action; his investment company Intellectual Ventures is working on the “Traveling Wave” reactor. Apparently the NRC has acknowledged the need; they have requested public comment on whether or not the government should change the licensing fee structure for small reactors. Under the present fee structure it can cost literally hundreds of millions of dollars to get a new design through the licensing process for a single new reactor. That high fee is a huge impediment to innovation and new designs. You can read my letter to the NRC here.
To my second point, two or three weeks ago the US Dept of Energy announced which companies will get loan guarantees for the first wave of new reactors under the 2005 Energy Policy Act. The companies are NRG Energy, SCANA, Southern Company, and UniStar Nuclear Energy (a partnership between Constellation and Areva). Those reactor construction projects are moving ahead. In fact, a friend at Southern Company told me they will be “moving dirt” this month at the site of the new Vogtle reactors in Georgia. At the same time, several other North American projects have been put on hold including Exelon’s Victoria project in Texas, AmerenUE’s second unit at Callaway, and Ontario announced they are curtailing their new nuclear plans for now.
With the current vintage of large reactor offerings, the high initial capital cost poses a significant challenge for even very large companies. Small reactors on he other hand will carry a much lower price tag. This is one reason these small modular reactors offer so much promise. They will enable companies and investors to buy nuclear generating capacity in smaller bites, and to scale up gradually as their needs dictate. In addition, many of the construction bottlenecks that exist with large reactors do not carry over to small reactors. The plant components are smaller and can be manufactured in more places. In fact, some of the small reactor designs do not have high operating pressures because they use coolants other than water. In these cases, new reactors will not need forged reactor vessels like those required for light water reactors.
A Nuclear Vacation?
So what I am going to be doing for the next week? Surprisingly it has a lot to do with small reactors. I am on my way to the west coast to spend four days aboard the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis! I’ll be joining the ship in San Diego on July 6 and will spend four days steaming north to Bremerton, Washington. This will be a new experience for me and I am really looking forward to it. While working in the Merchant Marine I traveled around the world on oil-fueled cargo ships, and I spent five years operating a submarine nuclear reactor plant for the Navy, but I have never been to sea on a nuclear-powered surface ship. The USS John C. Stennis is powered by two nuclear reactors that are large by mobile reactor standards, but would qualify as “small reactors” in the commercial nuclear world. I’ll be living, eating, sleeping and experiencing life aboard an aircraft carrier with ~ 5,000 of my new best friends all within a few hundred feet (or perhaps even a few feet) of two operating nuclear reactors.
Yes, this is how nuclear geeks spend their vacations! I will be blogging and hopefully I will have an opportunity to record a podcast or two while at sea. Stay tuned for more!