This new technology could save the troubled nuclear power industry
The future of the nuclear industry may happen somewhere on scenic but relatively isolated land that’s about 100 miles southwest of Yellowstone National Park. Amid the 890-square-mile Idaho National Laboratory campus, a plan is in motion to build a type of nuclear reactor unlike any that’s currently in use to produce electricity.
The plan belongs to Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, a consortium of 45 municipal agencies looking to replace their aging coal-fired plants. It won approval from the US Department of Energy earlier this year to scope out a site at the lab to analyze the environmental and safety impacts of what’s called the small nuclear reactor. If all goes well, the consortium plans to build a power plant there with 12 reactors totalling 600 megawatts in capacity.
The analysis is crucial for determining whether there’s a strong business case for building small nuclear reactors. The emerging technology is meant to create cheaper and safer nuclear power plants. Nuclear power plants emit no emissions, but existing designs have become too costly to be a popular solution for climate change. The new technology has gotten significant funding from investors such as Bill Gates.
The Utah group isn’t alone in investing in the new technology. In May, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which supplies power to nine million people in seven southeastern states, became the first utility to apply for a permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build a small nuclear reactor.
The name of the technology gives a good clue to its distinguishing characteristics. Unlike other nuclear reactors that usually produce about 1,000 megawatts of carbon-free electricity, the small modular reactors, like the ones Utah is planning, are designed to be a fraction of the size at 50 to 300 megawatts. Rather than using electrically operated pumps and motors to circulate coolant and keep the core of the nuclear reactor at a low temperature, as happens in traditional plants, small reactors use no pumps and motors and instead rely on passive means such as gravity and conduction to cool the reactors.
The compact size and other new improvements, including the ability to assemble all the components in a factory rather than on a project site, in theory make the small modular reactors much cheaper to build than traditional nuclear power plants that cost about $10bn and take a decade to secure permits and build. At a time when many existing nuclear power plants are struggling financially from competition from low natural gas prices and subsidized wind and solar projects, the nuclear industry sees hope in this next-generation technology.
“From an investment standpoint, this makes it easier to do because you don’t have to put all the money up front; you can stagger when you build them,” said Gene Grecheck, a former president and the current co-chair of a policy advisory committee at the American Nuclear Society, which represents engineers and scientists. Grecheck said scientists are studying other ways to improve nuclear technology.
“There is also a lot of research going on for advanced reactor concepts to take used fuel and reprocess it to reduce [the spent fuel] even more dramatically,” he said.
Startup companies working on using spent uranium fuel include the Bill Gates-backed TerraPoweras well as Transatomic and Terrestrial Energy. Another start up, Oklo, seeks to create 2-megawatt reactors that fit inside shipping containers to provide electricity for remote off-grid locations.
Many small nuclear reactor companies have yet to line up customers. One exception is Oregon-based NuScale Power, whose technology has been tapped for the project by the Utah consortium in Idaho.
NuScale plans to apply for certification from the US Nuclear Regulatory Agency later this year, a step that all nuclear engineering firms must take before their designs can be used to build power plants. The company expects the agency to approve the design by 2020 if the permit process goes smoothly, said Mike McGough, NuScale’s chief commercial officer.