Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What's Small Is Big to TVA


The New York Times has come around to nuclear energy slowly, ever so slowly. There have been some very nice editorials and some that almost get to very nice. The editorial yesterday is called The Dirty Energy Party and is mostly about Republican efforts to rein in environmental rulemaking. You can judge that part for yourself. It was this paragraph that grabbed us:
The main area of agreement between Mr. Obama and the Republicans seems to be nuclear power. Both sides support extensive loan guarantees to an industry that hasn’t built a new reactor in years but could supply a lot of clean power if it ever got going.
I’d probably throw the Democratic party in there, too – support has gotten pretty broad based – and in a brief mention, I won’t quibble too much about the Times ignoring the new reactors in progress in Georgia and South Carolina and Alabama. In my mind, that's getting going. In any event, I’d chalk this editorial up as almost very nice.

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A little news from my favorite utility, the Tennessee Valley Authority – why favorite? Read its history some time – it’s exceptionally fascinating. Oh, the news:
Jack Bailey, vice president of Nuclear Generation Deployment at the Tennessee Valley Authority, said his company plans to be the first utility in the US to build a set of small reactors.
Small reactors are a fairly recent enthusiasm. They take advantage of economies of scale to provide as much electricity as some of the first generation of nuclear plants, but are much smaller – and much smaller than a modern full-size plant.
At the same conference, officials from the US Department of Commerce and Department of Energy told the audience that the Obama administration sees big potential in small reactors to boost US competitiveness and re-energize the country's manufacturing base.
That’s good.
The White House's budget proposal, unveiled Monday, has requested $97 million for DOE to accelerate commercial deployment of small reactor technologies.
Even better. In some scenarios, the reactor could be built in a factory and shipped to a site. Most also have a plug-and-play capability – that is, a utility can chain a number of reactors together to incrementally add to their capacity. NEI has an interesting fact sheet about small reactors here, including a survey of the companies that want to produce them and other potential uses for them, including creating process heat for industrial application and helping to extract oil from Canada’s pesky tar sands.

Small reactors have attracted a lot of interest, in government as well as industry. The U.S. government’s International Trade Administration has issued a report about small reactors called The Commercial Outlook for U.S. Small Modular ReactorsIt includes “a series of policy and industry recommendations and, in an appendix, identifies 27 ‘best prospect’ international markets for SMRs.” Worth a look.

I often say that things like this are in early days. Not this time: small reactors have moved to the point where utilities are considering implementation. Consider TVA’s announcement a sort of marker in the story of small reactors.

Arnold Rothstein photographs workers at TVA's Watts Bar hydroelectric plant in 1942.

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