Nuclear, solved: small 'modular' reactors on an assembly line?

The Obama administration has proposed small 'modular' nuclear reactors as part of its 2012 federal budget. Can building power plants on an assembly line reduce costs?

The Obama administration’s 2012 budget proposal includes a request for funds to develop small “modular” nuclear reactors to power a government lab.

The reactors would be owned by a utility, and would require $500 million over five years, about 50 percent of the estimated cost to complete two designs and secure approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the New York Times reports.

The short-term reason behind the administration's request is to help the U.S. Department of Energy meet federal goals to go green by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. All federal agencies are now required by an executive order to reduce their carbon footprint by 28 percent by 2020.

The long-term goal, however, is to create assembly-line production of small reactors, considerably reducing costs and giving federal officials a good solution to replace old, coal-fired power plants that won't pass new federal emissions requirements.

The reactors would be built "almost entirely in a factory and trucked to a site like modular homes," reporter Matthew Wald writes.

Some points about the reactors:

  • Construction costs, modular reactors: several hundred million to $2 billion
  • Construction costs, conventional reactors: up to $10 billion (for a reactor with 20 times the output of a modular version).
  • The federal facility of interest: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee.

The only hurdle, and it's a major one, is that the design and approval process is prohibitively expensive. Quite simply, it's too steep to iterate quickly when it's unclear if there's a market for the reactors anyway.

The federal government's answer: pay half up front and sign a deal to buy power from it, thus guaranteeing revenue for the utility, and consequently making it easier for the utility to receive financing for the project.

The process starts with federal facilities: military bases, national laboratories, and so forth.

The manufacturers in the crosshairs are Babcock & WilcoxNuScaleWestinghouse and Holtec, which all have varying degrees of nuclear expertise, either from home power generation or through projects such as nuclear submarines.

Ultimately, this is another infrastructure story: Americans in the 1950s and 1960s bit the bullet to build out a national infrastructure (highways, power grid, etc.) -- and now that it's nearing retirement, we must rebuild it and then some.

Are modular reactors the answer? It remains to be seen, but there's no denying that smaller reactors can be installed in more locations without requiring the relatively massive overhead of a conventional version.

Illustration: Babcock & Wilcox

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