Skip to main content

Appeal of Small Reactors May Grow Following Fukushima Accident

Small, scalable reactors have captured the interest of industry and government alike. Their diverse uses, ease of deployment and relatively low cost are selling points, making the clean-air benefits of nuclear energy available to more companies in more places—and the first prototypes are not as far off as some may think. Russia is set next year to be the first in the world to deploy an innovative small nuclear power plant, aboard a barge docked offshore from the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The safety attributes of small reactors—less than 300 megawatts—are drawing increased attention in light of the Fukushima accident. Some designs place major components underground, out of reach of such natural phenomena as tsunamis and floods. And because these plants contain a relatively small amount of fuel, they produce less heat and radiation than large plants. Small plants also are seen as more affordable to build than their 1,000-plus megawatt counterparts. Ernest Moniz, director of MIT’s Energy Initiative, highlighted some of these points in a March 28 essay for The Atlantic:
The total capital cost is more in the billion dollar range rather than a significant multiple of that. Capacity can be built up with smaller bites, and this may lead to more favorable financing terms.
Moniz notes that, to be viable commercially, the SMRs must be competitive with large nuclear plants on a cost-per-installed-megawatt basis:
The [large plants] have been driven to larger and larger size in order to realize economies of scale. The SMRs may be able to defeat this logic by having factory construction of the SMR or at least of its major components. …The catch-22 is that the economies of manufacture will presumably be realizable only if there is a sufficiently reliable stream of orders to keep the manufacturing lines busy.
Tennessee Valley Authority is exploring the feasibility of building a small modular reactor—Babcock & Wilcox’s mPower design—that would begin commercial operation by 2020. TVA, which also operates large nuclear power plants, is interested in small reactors as potential replacements for older fossil-fueled power plants. Small reactor projects also are moving ahead in Argentina, China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, South Africa and France. The International Atomic Energy Agency is working to coordinate the efforts of member states on both small (less than 300 megawatt) and medium-sized designs (300 to 700 megawatt):
Small and medium sized reactors (SMRs) may provide an attractive and affordable nuclear power option for many developing countries with small electrical grids, insufficient infrastructure and limited investment capability.
One of the leaders in small reactor development is the Russian Federation. A large portion of the country has low population density, a decentralized power system and a rigorous climate that requires robust sources of electric power and thermal energy. The country has identified several potential locations for floating nuclear co-generation plants, which consist of a barge-mounted dwelling unit, nuclear island and steam turbine. The first “floating power unit,” launched last June, is scheduled for completion in 2012. It will be towed to Vilyuchinsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula for deployment:
The [small reactor] offers an economic alternative to onshore power plants in remote areas with costly power transmission and fossil fuel deliveries.
Moniz emphasizes the length of time it will take to develop new reactor concepts and the importance of starting now:
Prior to Fukushima, the Obama administration submitted to the Congress a proposed 2012 budget that would greatly enhance the level of activity in bringing SMRs to market. …The program is modest but sensible. Obviously the federal budget deficit makes it difficult to start any new programs, but a hiatus in creating new clean energy options—be it nuclear SMRs or renewables or advanced batteries—will have us looking back in 10 years lamenting the lack of a technology portfolio needed to meet our energy and environmental needs economically or to compete in the global market. Let's get on with it.


seth said…
Nope spending $150B per annum on mititary R&D no questions asked is much more important than any expenditure on the nations nuke energy future which needs a business case. China will soon be leaving us in the dustbin of civilization. American's need to be deeply ashamed of their country and its crooked politicians 99% of whom are on Big Oil's payroll.
John Powalski said…
More nuclear industry wishful thinking. We have yet to begin to understand the implications of the unprecedented disaster at Fukushima for our industry.
Horizon3 said…
Why is it that our idiots in government constantly force the wheel to be reinvented? With stupid redundant regs and laws that are not helpful or in many cases outright harmful.
We have been using small compact reactors in the military for more than 50 years. Without a single nuclear incident mind you.

The Russians on the other hand have had several, this is mostly due to crappy design, substandard materials, and most important, peoples attitudes. The Chinese probably have had several, since they stole or bought their designs from the Russians, and they have even worse attitudes when it comes to human life value, but they don't talk about it so we will probably never know.

Popular posts from this blog

Knowing What You’ve Got Before It’s Gone in Nuclear Energy

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

Nuclear energy is by far the largest source of carbon prevention in the United States, but this is a rough time to be in the business of selling electricity due to cheap natural gas and a flood of subsidized renewable energy. Some nuclear plants have closed prematurely, and others likely will follow.
In recent weeks, Exelon and the Omaha Public Power District said that they might close the Clinton, Quad Cities and Fort Calhoun nuclear reactors. As Joni Mitchell’s famous song says, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
More than 100 energy and policy experts will gather in a U.S. Senate meeting room on May 19 to talk about how to improve the viability of existing nuclear plants. The event will be webcast, and a link will be available here.
Unlike other energy sources, nuclear power plants get no specia…

Making Clouds for a Living

Donell Banks works at Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4 as a shift supervisor in Operations, but is in the process of transitioning to his newly appointed role as the daily work controls manager. He has been in the nuclear energy industry for about 11 years.

I love what I do because I have the unique opportunity to help shape the direction and influence the culture for the future of nuclear power in the United States. Every single day presents a new challenge, but I wouldn't have it any other way. As a shift supervisor, I was primarily responsible for managing the development of procedures and programs to support operation of the first new nuclear units in the United States in more than 30 years. As the daily work controls manager, I will be responsible for oversight of the execution and scheduling of daily work to ensure organizational readiness to operate the new units.

I envision a nuclear energy industry that leverages the technology of today to improve efficiency…

Nuclear: Energy for All Political Seasons

The electoral college will soon confirm a surprise election result, Donald Trump. However, in the electricity world, there are fewer surprises – physics and economics will continue to apply, and Republicans and Democrats are going to find a lot to like about nuclear energy over the next four years.

In a Trump administration, the carbon conversation is going to be less prominent. But the nuclear value proposition is still there. We bring steady jobs to rural areas, including in the Rust Belt, which put Donald Trump in office. Nuclear plants keep the surrounding communities vibrant.

We hold down electricity costs for the whole economy. We provide energy diversity, reducing the risk of disruption. We are a critical part of America’s industrial infrastructure, and the importance of infrastructure is something that President-Elect Trump has stressed.

One of our infrastructure challenges is natural gas pipelines, which have gotten more congested as extremely low gas prices have pulled m…