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.