DOE outlines funding for small nuclear reactors

The Department of Energy has outlined how it will fund the design and development of small nuclear reactors as a way to combat climate change and create U.S. jobs.

Westinghouse Electric outlines the lower component requirements for its Electric’s AP1000 SMR reactor design. (Image Credit: Westinghouse)

The concept of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) was brought closer toward reality yesterday with the U.S. Department of Energy outlining how it intends to support the design and licensing of SMRs. The Obama administration supports SMRs as a form of low carbon energy and for job creation.

The general idea behind SMRs is to cluster together many small reactors to match the output of obsolete coal or nuclear facilities. Steam output from many modules would power a common generator to produce electricity, and SMR reactors are passively cooled, so core meltdowns are less of a possibility.

Each module would be equipped with its own containment assembly that’s housed in a pre-fabricated unit. The line term goal is to reduce costs through leveraging an assembly line type of fabrication processes. The estimated construction cost for an SMRs is between several hundred million to US$2 billion, while a conventional reactor (with 20x the energy output) would cost over $10 billion.

Critics say that the SMR concept has some major downsides including exacerbating the existing nuclear waste problem and that the technology's arrival is too far out to effectively address climate change. Even still, the White House stands firmly behind SMRs.

“America’s choice is clear - we can either develop the next generation of clean energy technologies, which will help create thousands of new jobs and export opportunities here in America, or we can wait for other countries to take the lead,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “The funding opportunity announced today is a significant step forward in designing, manufacturing, and exporting U.S. small modular reactors, advancing our competitive edge in the global clean energy race.”

The Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) is still incomplete, and the DOE is soliciting industry input. FOA outlines a cost-sharing partnership with the federal government. The FOA’s intent is to fund two SMR designs for deployment by 2022. Babcock & Wilcox, NuScale, and Holtec are likely to become SMR manufacturers.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently certified Westinghouse Electric’s AP1000 nuclear reactor design, and the company today announced that it would apply for the DOE’s reactor investment funds - along with a consortium of utilities. Westinghouse aims to be first to market with its SMR design, which it says will kickstart the U.S. nuclear industry.

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