asked to name a nuclear power company, the average person might
identify an electric utility, or might cite one of the world's large
reactor vendors, like Toshiba's Westinghouse group, France's Areva,
or General Electric Hitachi.
hear of NuScale Power?
U.S. Department of Energy has. DOE has just awarded the Corvallis, Oregon startup as much as $226 million to develop and build a reactor
that departs from the conventional designs that have defined the
industry for all of its 50-plus years.
is working on a “small modular reactor” (SMR) that is
significantly smaller than traditional reactors, compared
to which its hardware is potentially much less expensive, and safer. The
NuScale Integral Pressurized Water Reactor will have an electrical
output of 45 megawatts, roughly 3 or 4 percent of today's new
reactors, which exceed 1,000 megawatts (1 gigawatt).
of the main ideas behind SMRs is that they can be made assembly-line
style and shipped on a truck to the end user, a process that would
slash cost from the nuclear building process.
end users such as utilities could buy new reactors in increments,
thus reducing the enormous upfront capital expenditure for
conventional gigawatt-plus reactors, which can soar to over $10
billion each. NuScale's approach allows up to 12 reactors on one
site, for a 540-megawatt plant. Its cylindrical design measures
80-feet by 15 feet, including a steam generator (thus the “integral”
in the reactor's name, as the generator normally resides on a separate "island" in a nuclear plant). The reactor would operate underground –
protecting it from attack - in a pool of water that would cool it in
is a 2007 spin out from Oregon State University, but at
seven-years-old it is still a relative “startup” in the
traditionally slow moving nuclear industry, even if it is now
majority owned by $27.6 billion Irving, Texas engineering company
Fluor. (For more on NuScale and its DOE grant, see my story on the Weinberg website).
is representative of a growing group of young nuclear companies that
are trying to shake the industry out of its business-as-usual ways
with reactor designs that can be superior in many ways – cost,
efficiency, safety, waste and others - to the reactors that the industry has built for five decades.
innovative as the Oregon company's shrunken reactor is, NuScale still
applies a lot of convention, such as using water as the coolant that absorbs heat from nuclear fission reactions and transfers the heat to a steam turbine, and such as using solid uranium rods as fuel.
startup companies (and some older ones) from the U.S., Canada and
around the world are working on designs that depart from convention
in far more radical ways.
them, these companies are proposing reactors that yield less
long-lived waste than conventional reactors, that can use “waste”
as fuel (mitigating the need to store the waste), that run at safe
normal pressure rather than in potentially dangerous pressurized
environments, that can be virtually melt-down proof, that can make
better use of fuel (today's uranium reactors use only a very small
percentage of the uranium that feeds them which is one reason they
yield a lot of troublesome waste).
To accomplish this, each is proposing their own unique set of changes that tend to include, among others, some combination of: liquid fuel; alternative solid fuels shaped into pebble or brick form rather than rods; different coolants including salts and gases and metals instead of water; thorium fuel instead of uranium; and others, such as allowing neutrons to run "fast" rather than slowing them down as today's reactors do.
of these “advanced" or “fourth generation” reactors
run at much higher temperatures than today's inefficient and inferior
behemoths. (NuScale's reactor, for all its benefits, operates at conventional temperatures).
temperatures improve the efficiency of electricity generation, which
would help make nuclear more cost-competitive with what today is inexpensive natural gas, at least in the U.S.
And as U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz himself recently noted, with operating temperatures of between 600 degrees C and 900 degrees C, many of these reactors could work as clean sources of heat used in industrial processes such hydrogen production, steelmaking, cement making, and
oil and petrochemical processing – replacing CO2-emitting fossil
written about many of the companies working on these designs, here on SmartPlanet. The young ones
include, among others: Bill Gates' nuclear company TerraPower; Flibe Energy; Terrestrial Energy; Transatomic Power; Thorium Tech Solution;
Northern Nuclear; Steenkampskraal Thorium Ltd.; and Thor Energy.
Among older companies, General Atomics in San Diego has an
interesting high temperature reactor in the works that could burn
spent fuel; and General Electric Hitachi has a reactor call PRISM
that could use waste as fuel. Westinghouse and Areva are also quietly
looking into alternatives.
several startup companies have emerged to chase the dream of fusion
energy, which generates electricity by combining atoms rather than
splitting them apart).
is investing heavily in many of its own advanced nuclear projects,
while Russia looks intent on developing a version called a “fast”
government backing for advanced nuclear in those two countries exceeds the U.S. commitment. For U.S. advanced nuclear enthusiasts,
the DOE's $226 million commitment to NuScale marks an encouraging
step in the right direction. It's the second tranche in a $452
million funding initiative, coming a year after a similar award to small reactor maker Babcock & Wilcox.
what many would like to see is for the U.S. to step up its
involvement in advanced nuclear, and to do more to encourage the
development of high temperature (and even fusion) reactors.
Secretary Ernest Moniz has become more vocal lately about the role
that nuclear power can play in combatting climate change. Nuclear is
a clean energy source that emits no CO2 in the electricity (or heat)
generating process and that over its lifetime, including mining and
construction, emits comparatively little CO2.
modular reactors represent a new generation of safe, reliable,
low-carbon nuclear energy technology,” Moniz
said in announcing the award
to NuScale late last week. “The Energy Department is committed to
strengthening nuclear energy’s continuing important role in
America’s low carbon future.”
Many of the advanced, high temperature reactors suit themselves perfectly to small modular design. In fact, some of the companies developing them applied for the funding that DOE granted to NuScale.
Between them, these companies are the Googles, Skypes, Twitters and Facebooks of their industry. Google et al have already turned old media and old telecom on its head. It will take the NuScales, Terrestrial, Flibes, Transatomics and their like a longer time to do the same in nuclear, given the more complex and expensive regulatory and development environments.
But it will happen. Innovation is returning to nuclear in a manner that the industry hasn't seen since the early days in the 1950s and 60s. There is still not enough of it, at least not in the West. The will is there among the scientists, engineers and technologists. More money needs to flow into it. There are signs that the oil industry could help fund it - both as a user and possible vendor of nuclear power.
More supportive government policy would help in the West, where obstacles include vested interests of conventional nuclear, a general public and political squeamishness over the word "nuclear," and, in the U.S., the current craze for low-priced natural gas.
DOE's $226 million grant of NuScale is a step in the right direction. But it's a small step - in more ways than one. It's time to move on to the advanced round.
Cover photo is from NuScale via Charleston Regional Business Journal
Recent alternative nuclear developments:
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com