Saturday, July 26, 2008

Small reactors seek market share

Conventional light water units of just 45 MW could go online by 2015

There's a fair amount of excitement over an article published in the July 15 issue of Popular Mechanics about a 45 MW light-water reactor. It describes a plant design that is just 65 feet long with a reactor unit as tall as two NBA basketball players, about 14 feet high. The steel reactor vessel is reportedly just nine feet in diameter.

ReyesOregon According to Jose Reyes, (left) head of the nuclear engineering department at Oregon State, and co-founder of NuScale Power, the firm has submitted its reactor plans to the NRC. A one-third scale prototype will enter testing for the next 18 months. Assuming it can get all the NRC approvals, and if all else goes well, the firm expects to start building them and have them in service by 2015. Of course, that's a lot of "ifs."

This is still a considerable competitive challenge to the folks in China and South Africa who are racing to build Pebble Bed reactors at about 160-200 MW. Their product statements also brim with confidence about time-to-market, but the actual date either China or South Africa's units will enter revenue service is still unknown. Some information is available on construction schedules.

In South Africa the State-owned technology-development company PBMR plans to begin construction of a demonstration reactor alongside the existing Koeberg nuclear site in 2010. It hoped to load fuel in 2013 and begin reactor start-up in 2014. If successful the firm could build up to a dozen 160 MW plants over the next decade.

In China, Shidaowan is a 200 MWe HTR demonstration plant that will be built in Rongchen City. The Shidaowan project received environmental clearance in March 2008 for a construction start in 2009 and commissioning by 2013.

In a new publication on small reactors published this month the World Nuclear Association has technical notes on at least a dozen different designs with power levels up to 300 MW. Applications include electricity generation and process heat for industrial purposes such as chemical plants, oil refining, and water desalinization.

PebblesAdvocates of small reactors point out that these plants, regardless of design, can be built in networks, positioned like cell towers, but in an electrical grid. If one unit goes offline, the entire network doesn't shut down. On the other hand, a unit the size of a Westinghouse AP1000 has an all or nothing impact on a transmission and distribution network.

Another benefit of smaller units is that they need less transmission and distribution network infrastructure to reach customers. In the Popular Mechanics article NRC spokesperson Scott Burnell said,

"You can't take an AP1000, a large base-load reactor, and put it down where there is no grid to support it. A smaller design could be useful in a remote setting."

The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) is planning to build a 300 MW "Next Generation Nuclear Plant" (NGNP) with construction starting for the R&D unit in 2016. Commercial applications would come later. In terms of time-to-market, as things stand now, both South Africa and China will be exporting pebble bed design reactors by the end of the next decade. The U.S. could speed things up for commercialization of NGNP if it partnered with one or both efforts.

transformerstationAssuming the plant will generate electricity, as well as be used for process heat applications, one of the attractions of the 300 MW size is that it would fit into the existing transmission and distribution grid in Idaho which would be used to send the electricity from the plant to Boise and Salt Lake City. This hypothetical example demonstrates the fact that it would not require significant upgrade costs to add the plant's output to the regional grid. In fact, the most significant factor driving the need to upgrade the grid over the next 20 years will be population growth and with it the demand for electricity.

Add to that the smaller reactor designs are obvious candidates for developing nations that don't have a couple of billion lying around for a 1,000 MW unit. Assuming that the cost curves for a 100 MW light water reactor unit's basic components are similar to a big one, a cost of $2,000/Kw puts a 45 MW nuclear energy unit in a price range of $90 million. In the electricity generation business that's a bargain for C02 emission free electricity. Developing nations would also likely be interested in small reactors for process heat applications.

New options, new uses?

Small reactors will be a new option for utilities, and they may be cautious about buying them for conventional applications. Toshiba has been pursuing the idea of putting a "nuclear battery" into Galena, Alaska, which is an example of a remote application, but the major challenge might be convincing the nuclear engineers who are needed to maintain it to stay there.

Some applications are more or less "remote" than others, and a 45 MW plant still would need a customer base of about 90,000 people, based on Reyes' numbers, to be economically justified. Greeley, Colorado, would be about the right size. The city is 65 miles north of Denver well outside of the furtherest ring of suburban growth. It has its own economic engines of growth including agriculture & food processing, high tech computer component manufacturing, and medical services. It would be a lot easier to recruit a workforce to run the plant there as well. If a city like Greeley wanted to got off the price escalator of electricity from fossil fuel plants, it could consider a small reactor and avoid the greenhouse gas issues related to a new coal or gas fired plant.

The U.S. military may be interested especially for instances where tactical readiness for a fighter wing can't rely on local electrical grids. A nuclear reactor with components small enough to fit inside a Lockheed C5A (payload 290,000 pounds) might be capable of being airlifted to power an entire USAF base. Whether the host country would accept having a U.S. nuclear reactor just show up one day rolling off an airplane is a matter for diplomats rather than engineers.

Civilian application could conceivably include providing reliable power for a major metropolitan airport, financial and medical centers, and other customers who would seek to rely on a combination of a mesh or grid of small units as well as electricity from large base-load units.

Segmenting the market

westinghouse logoWestinghouse and other manufacturers of large reactors might not feel much of an economic threat from these smaller reactors because they aren't designed to support base-load electricity demands for entire cities.

The firm has recently inked deals for a total of six new AP1000 reactors with Southern and Progress Energy in addition to four it contracted to build in China last year. NRG's new twin GE-Hitachi units at STP will supply 2,700 MW of electricity starting in 2015 to a huge swath of cities in Texas keeping the lights on for millions of people.

For most major large utilities in the U.S. and U.K. as well as other G8 countries, the conventional large units will likely continue to dominate the market. For developing nations, like Thailand, which have launched exploratory efforts to evaluate the potential of nuclear energy, a 45 MW light water reactor, or other small design, might be worth a look.

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See related coverage on this blog "Small reactors have NRC's attention"

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