Small Modular Reactors are an Emerging Technology Facing Many Challenges

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Published: February 16, 2023

By Concentric Staff Writer

Development of large-scale nuclear energy facilities has stalled in the U.S., but a new technology—small modular reactors—is a promising new frontier. Commercializing a nascent and ground-breaking method of power production is never simple, however, as developers are finding.

In the years following the accident at the Three-Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, and other events such as the Chornobyl accident in 1986 and the Fukushima accident in 2011, the development of large new nuclear power plants in the U.S. has fizzled. There are currently only two large reactors under construction nationwide: Units 3 and 4 at the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia. This expansion began in 2009 and has been plagued by delays and cost overruns, with its initial $14 billion estimated cost ballooning to $28.5 billion by last year. The situation illustrates the difficulties in developing new utility-scale nuclear power. As of May 2022, 54 nuclear power plants were operating in the U.S., comprised of 92 individual reactors, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

However, small modular reactors (“SMRs”) are enjoying a push in investment and development. One leading developer, Portland, Oregon-based NuScale Power (“NuScale”), on Jan. 1 submitted its standard design application for its SMR to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (“NRC”). NuScale’s Carbon Free Power Project (“CFPP”) would be the first facility of its kind and is due to begin generating power in 2029 and be fully operational by 2030. The 462-MW SMR would be at the site of the Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls and would sell power into the regional Western Energy Imbalance Market operated by the California Independent System Operator.

The standard design certification is one of three that NuScale will require from the NRC. In July, the NRC directed its staff to certify that a safety application submitted by NuScale in December 2016 meets the agency’s safety standards. Next year, NuScale and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (“UAMPS”), the offtaker for NuScale’s planned SMR at the Idaho National Laboratory, will submit a combined license application to the NRC.

The NRC responded to NuScale’s draft application, which sought to identify any missing information or any technical or regulatory details that might complicate the application’s acceptance or regulatory review. In a Nov. 15 letter, NRC said it identified several challenging or significant issues regarding the application, including details about power system safety classifications, assessment plans for vibration assessment and steam generator tube support, and other technical details regarding containment vessel and reactor material and potential accidents.

Despite heavy federal support and investment, only about one-third of the CFPP’s planned capacity has been contracted to UAMPS members, leaving about two-thirds of its output unaccounted for. It will need more commitments for its output to be economically viable.

NuScale, like other power generation concerns, is also facing steeply increasing costs. In 2016 the company estimated costs from the CFPP would be about $55 per MWh, but that amount has steadily increased and company representatives have recently said publicly that the projected cost could be as high as $100 per MWh. In the past two years, the company has experienced sharp rises in the costs of steel, electrical equipment, copper wire, and cable, as well as other commodities necessary for construction of the plant, it said in a Jan. 9 press release discussing an updated project cost estimate.

“The Department has long recognized the transformational value that advanced SMRs can provide to the nation’s economic, energy security, and environmental outlook,” DOE said in an SMR fact sheet. “Accordingly, the Department has provided substantial support to the development of light water-cooled SMRs, which are under licensing review by the NRC and will likely be deployed in the late 2020s to early 2030s.”

DOE initiated an Advanced SMR R&D Program in fiscal year 2019 to support research, development, and deployment activities in the U.S. and foreign markets. DOE in an online posting acknowledged that “significant technology development and licensing risks remain in bringing advanced SMR designs to market,” requiring government support. In 2017, the Department issued a multi-year, cost-shared funding opportunity (U.S. Industry Opportunities for Advanced Nuclear Technology Development, DE-FOA-0001817), which it has awarded to various advanced nuclear technologies.

SMRs generally have a capacity of up to 300 MW per unit, which is about one-third the capacity of traditional nuclear power plants, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (“IAEA”). Prefabricated units can be built, shipped, and installed onsite, unlike regular plants that often have to be custom designed for the intended site. There is also a subset of SMRs called “microreactors” that can be built up to 10 MW equivalent and have smaller footprints than regular SMRs. SMRs also require less frequent refueling, typically every three to seven years, compared with one to two years for conventional plants. Some SMRs can operate for up to 30 years without refueling, according to the IAEA.

The world’s first floating nuclear reactor, Russia’s small-capacity Akademik Lomonosov, began commercial operation in May 2020 and other SMRs are under construction or undergoing licensing in Argentina, Canada, China, Russia, and South Korea. There are more than 70 commercial SMR designs being developed around the world, the agency said.

NuScale is also working with several partners, including Shell Global Solutions, to develop an integrated energy system to produce hydrogen from electricity and process heat from NuScale SMRs. NuScale says its SMR technology holds the potential to balance and stabilize power grids dominated by renewables through hydrogen production. Hydrogen would be used as an end product or as a stored energy resource.

Although a leader in the field, NuScale is not the only developer of SMRs—there are dozens of companies around the world developing SMR proposals, many of them in the conceptual design stage. If SMRs can gain acceptance from the American public and avoid the concerns of their large-scale predecessors, SMRs might become a more familiar aspect of the power production landscape.

All views expressed by the contributors are solely the contributors’ current views and do not reflect the views of Concentric Energy Advisors, Inc., its affiliates, subsidiaries, or related companies. The contributors’ views are based upon information the contributors consider reliable at the time of publication. However, neither Concentric Energy Advisors, Inc., nor its affiliates, subsidiaries, and related companies warrant the information’s completeness or accuracy, and it should not be relied upon as such.

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