Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Nuclear Game Changer?

reactor_concept_small That’s how Babcock & Wilcox described their scaled down nuclear reactor, intended to top out at 125 megawatts. Cost has been an issue with, shall we say, pee-wee reactors, but no problems here:

The mPower reactor would include independent "modular" units that could be manufactured on an assembly line, thus cutting manufacturing and construction costs, said John Fees, CEO of McDermott International, the parent company of Babcock & Wilcox. Units could be built and come online even as others are being built, he said, allowing power companies to start earning revenue faster.

And:

"This brings not only lower installation base cost but also brings greater cost certainty" compared to the $6 billion to $8 billion large-reactor option, Fees said. He declined to name a price for mPower, but said it would be "under the $5,000 per megawatt" price that the industry has estimated for large reactors.

How much lower isn’t really the point – that it even hovers there is remarkable, as scaling down a plant this far has generally made it uneconomical.

The new reactor has attracted "early and broad customer interest," Mowry said. A consortium of regional municipal and cooperative utilities -- which he declined to name -- has signed a "memorandum of understanding" to explore the construction of reactors, he said.

We include this to note the second instance of a “decline.” We wonder if the Times is suggesting there’s some doubt built into this – as there should always be before an announcement turns into a practical working item that fulfills various promises.

But if doubt turns into reality – and why not, B&W aren’t selling this via infomercial - there’s very real potential here. One thing you want a new nuclear plant to do is to allow shuttering a plant that emits CO2 willy-nilly. These small plants, which presumably can be sited a bit more easily than their big siblings, might make that more broadly plausible. (The B&W page referenced below shows these units joined together to scale up, but that doesn’t seem to be the initial goal.)

So far, the industry attitude seems encouraging and uncommitted.

The Tennessee Valley Authority is evaluating a potential site near the Clinch River in Roane County, Tenn., for the reactor and is a industrial consultant for Babcock & Wilcox, said Jack Bailey, TVA's vice president of nuclear generation development. TVA has not made any decisions about building a small reactor plant, however, Bailey added.

Same for Exelon. This makes sense – early days and all – but Babcock & Wilcox are hoping for 2011 approval from the NRC for the design. Then we’ll see what’s possible and who commits to what.

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The story reports that several politicians showed up for the announcement, including Tenneseeans Sens. Lamar Alexander (R) and Bob Corker (R) and Reps. Lincoln Davis (D) and Zach Wamp (R). Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) also was there. Maybe this ties into the nuclear provisions of the Republican energy bill we noted this morning or it’s a nod to TVA. Rep. Lincoln gives it a bit of a bi-partisan push.

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Babcock&Wilcox have a page up on this technology. See here. You can look at a nice brochure, read more about it and – hey, no page to place orders!

A concept shot of the reactor.

4 comments:

Marcel F. Williams said...

Once again, a 'Federal utility', the TVA, is first to sign a letter of intent to use the Babcock & Wilcox Company’s new mPower small nuclear reactor with several Republicans cheering them on.

The TVA has also expressed interest in using MOX from weapons grade plutonium which means that Federal reactors could be an option for using reprocessed spent fuel from our commercial nuclear reactors.

So maybe the usually anti-government Republicans are finally recognizing the value of a Federal Nuclear utility in helping to expand nuclear power in the US.

Charles Barton said...

Perhaps not a game changer by itself, but several steps in the right direction. An indicator that there still is an American based nuclear industry that is not willing to rikk iver and play dead.

Rod Adams said...

I find it amusing that so far I have not found anyone writing about this who has realized that John Fees had an obvious slip of the tongue - sort of a verbal typo - when he said "under the $5,000 per megawatt. . .". If that was true, a 125 MWe plant would only cost $625,000.

What a deal that would be.

Of course, Fees really meant to say "under the $5,000 per kilowatt. . ." leading to a bounding price of perhaps $625 million. That is actually within the financing capability of a company like Exelon without any government assistance or complicated partnership arrangements.

My assertion is that the mPower is to reactors today what the VAX was to computers in the 1970s.

perdajz said...

It is not a game changer for the nuclear power industry per se, but it is a game changer for antinukes who think that large central generating stations are a thing of the past and use this specious thought to argue against nuclear power. Small reactors (30 - 100 MW), especially Toshiba's nuclear battery, take away the argument that (1) nuclear plants are too big, or too lumpy, or too brittle, or take too long to build, and (2) we need small, beautiful wind turbines and solar power installations instead.

I don't think it changes the game in the near term for the nuclear power industry. Right now, I think the political, legal and regulatory risks (in the U.S.) of building a 1600MW plant are little different from those faced in building a 100 MW plant. That will change as some point, but my guess is that will change only after many large reactors have been built.