Sunday, July 27, 2008

Small reactors have NRC's attention

Chairman Dale Klein says they're part of the "nuclear renaissance." He has some advice for how to deal with their licensing issues.

drummerThe drumbeat for a global nuclear renaissance is giving some people a headache and that includes NRC chairman Dale Klein who complained about it at a conference by the same name in Alexandria, VA, last week. While NRC's head honcho is very interested in small reactors, he thinks the bigger picture will take "decades to unroll."

Business is booming at the NRC

Klein led off by telling his audience since 2007 the NRC has received 9 license applications for 15 new plants. He said the agency has been told by various utilities to expect another 11 applications for another 16 reactors by the end of 2009. The agency is under the gun to meet its self-imposed 42-month deadline for reviews of combined construction & operating license (COL) applications. That's 20 new applications and 31 new reactors.

Jaw boning session for NRC applicants

To get the applications reviewed on time, Klein said the industry must stop changing their minds about things. He did some serious jaw boning with reactor manufacturers and their customers. Now he didn't use these words like "stop screwing around," but if you sift through the window dressing of a government speech, it is pretty clear he's got a beef or two and wanted to get a few things off his chest.

fear-turtleHe reminded permit applicants to use the Early Site Permit process and certified reactor designs. Some have planned to bypass both and may come to regret that decision Klein said. Essentially, he told the industry the agency is not issuing permits for tortoise hunting. It is reviewing applications for nuclear reactors. It is a serious business and he wants people to be realistic when they file their applications.

The problem Klein said is that only one-in-five of the designs being referenced in COL applications are certified reactor designs. He said that some design certification applications and COL applications lack the information NRC staff need to conduct their review. This is giving him and his agency a headache. It's a clear object lesson for promoters of small reactors who have captured Klein's attention.

Why small reactors matter

ICB_TwinKlein said the NRC has been contacted by several designers of small, advanced reactors, and that his agency takes no position on which ones ought to succeed or fail. The commercial outcome, Klein said, depends on market issues.

That said he noted small reactors cost a lot less and may be very attractive for that reason in developing nations which need energy for economic growth. He said "reliable electricity can literally change people's lives." Klein clearly is focused on small reactors. He said,

My own view is that these small, advanced designs offer enormous possibilities for providing both electricity and process heat, and for improving the standard of living for people in the developing world in the near future, and perhaps even for people here in the U.S. in the long term.

Despite these attractions, NRC isn't seeing any interest by U.S. customers. He expects it sooner or later, and like his prior speech on licensing fuel recycling facilities, he encouraged industry to form technical working groups to start figuring out how to build small reactors, especially modular groups of them, for U.S. customers. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.

NGNP is a special case

One of the small reactor designs that has a high profile is the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP). One of them will be built at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) with construction expected to start in 2016.

Klein pointed out the high-temperature gas-cooled design is mandated by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Currently, Klein said, NRC staff has briefed him on one pebble bed design and two prismatic core reactor designs (large image). Next month the NRC will deliver a report to Congress, jointly with the Department of Energy, on a licensing strategy for NGNP.

Here is the heart of Klein's message on licensing a small reactor like the NGNP.

This advanced technology presents several technical issues that we will need to address, including:

  • Fuel performance
  • Containment functional performance
  • Safety and security issues
  • Material performance under very high temperatures,
  • The use of probabilistic risk assessment in the licensing process.

whalesOver the long term, Klein said, the NRC is "very interested" in keeping up to date on technological developments related to small reactors and their promise for small markets.

That's a whale of a lot of attention for small reactors from the chief nuclear regulator. Advocates for small reactors take note.

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See previous coverage of small reactors on this blog.

There is an excellent discussion taking place on small reactors over at Rod Adams 'Atomic Insights' blog. See his article and very interesting comments that have spun off from it.

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Charles Barton said...

Small reactors have great potential as base power sources in advanced industrial societies. This would be especially the case with PBRs and LFTRs. Mass production would greatly lower their production cost and the time spent building them. Small reactors could be built as modular units that could be transported by rail. The superior safety, potential for use in unconventional sites, high efficiency, low capitol costs, and potential to be factory built in large numbers, small reactors could play a very large role in future energy solutions.

Rod Adams said...


Thanks for an in-depth coverage of an important speech.

Until very recently, there was little awareness (outside of certain small groups of technologists) that reactors come in sizes other than "extra large" to borrow a sound bite from an expert in sound bites.

Now that awareness is growing, I suspect that there are a number of customers who are laying the knowledge groundwork required to determine that they are very interested in what those smaller sized reactors can do.

One think they can do is to compete directly with oil in generating electricity in less connected areas. While Alaska is interesting, the entire state of Hawaii currently depends on oil and is paying close to 30 cents per kilowatt hour - and rising - for electricity.

My prediction - the NRC may get some assistance and redirection on its priorities since small reactors can solve more immediate problems than those that compete with domestic coal.