Friday, September 10, 2010

Hyperion to build small modular reactor at Savannah River

The project is a partnership between a Department of Energy national laboratory and an entrepreneurial start-up financed with venture capital

Hyperion_Modular_Reactor2 Small modular reactor (SMR) start-up vendor Hyperion Power Generation has agreed to build a prototype mini-nuclear reactor at a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory Platts reported Sept 9. (See also WJBF TV video report)

The company signed a memorandum of understanding with the Savannah River Nuclear Solutions to build the first demonstration reactor at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. It represents a huge leap forward for Hyperion. Until this announcement, some in the nuclear industry held a skeptical view of its prospects for success.

The Aiken, SC, Standard reported that Garry Flowers, president and chief executive office of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, said SRS is the ideal place to develop and demonstrate the technology.

"This is one of the first in a series of steps that can put this region in an active role toward transforming America's energy future," Flowers said. "Small and modular reactors can become the primary base of new, clean power for the world."

John R. Deal, chief executive officer and co-founder of Hyperion, said, “First, though, we have to show how and where it can work, and the Savannah River Site is an excellent demonstration site."

Hyperion is developing a 25-MW fast reactor that uses uranium nitride fuel and lead bismuth (liquid metal) coolant. SRS officials hope to use the reactor to produce hydrogen which in turn will be used to make biofuels. Other applications include reliable power for military bases.

Cost estimate to be determined

raising_capitalThe Augusta Chronicle reported that Mike Navetta, manager of energy park initiatives for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, said officials hope to have the reactor built and operational by 2020. He estimated the cost at $100-150 million most of which would be raised from private investors. It isn't clear whether the unit to be built at SRS would be a prototype or a working commercial version of the reactor.

However, Deborah Blackwell, a spokesperson for Hyperion, told Platts the Hyperion prototype will cost just $50 million or $2,000/Kw. She also said the money would be raised from investors and not come from the government. She told Plats that she is "confident" the company will secure the funding, but declined to give Platts more details.

Navetta told the Augusta Chronicle a larger reactor would $1 billion He said cost savings will be realized because of existing materials and facilities at Savannah River Site.

SRS to be demonstration site for multiple SMRs?

rose colored glassesIs SRS looking at the future of SMRs through rose colored glasses? Savannah River Nuclear Solutions is reportedly talking with five or six other companies about building prototypes at the complex. The plan is for manufacturers of small reactors to come there and prove their technologies actually work. No one from SRS said anything about federal money being used to pay for construction of the prototypes or the testing process.

With regard to Hyperion’s project, Pete Knollmeyer, vice president for strategic planning at Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, said at the press conference, the design and licensing processes will take several years each and construction could take an additional three to four years.

This is an optimistic outlook. Hyperion hasn’t yet submitted its reactor design to the NRC for a safety review. The firm would have to clear that hurdle and also get a license from the regulatory agency to build a reactor at SRS or anywhere else.

The NRC is working to come up the learning curve on how to license SMRs that are not based on mature light water reactor (LWR) designs. By its own assessment, the agency still has a way to go to be able to do it. There are a raft of licensing issues it has to work through.

The NRC is getting lots of advice from the Nuclear Energy Institute and the American Nuclear Society. The dialog between the agency and the industry is described by one expert as “a kabuki dance” with all the intricacies that come with this idiomatic metaphor.

On the other hand, Hyperion’s test stand at SRS could help push the reactor vendor to the head of the line for safety review and licensing. The reason is that with a visible prototype project, it could be the first fast reactor SMR to attract paying customers. This is always a litmus test for the NRC. Hyperion has a chance to pass it if it can raise investor funds for the SRS project.

Idaho lab has much bigger fish to fry

flounderDOE’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL) is developed a 300 MW high temperature gas cooled fast SMR called the Next Generation Nuclear Plant. It is expected to start construction by the end of this decade.

While no financing plan has been announced for the Idaho project, one plausible scenario is for the first unit to be built, in a cost sharing agreement with the government, at a customer site to supply process heat for the petrochemical industry. At $4,500/Kw, a 300 MW plant could cost $1.35 billion.

In the current deficit reduction climate for federal spending, crtiics say funding for a project of this size will take some real heavy lifting. Capital commitments of this kind take years to develop so it doesn't make sense to discount the Idaho project based on current economic conditions. Having an industry partner as a customer could make a difference.

Update September 13, 2010

There's been some comment about exactly what would be the licensing path forward for the Hyperion reactor if built as a prototype at SRS. Nuclear Engineering Int'l, a UK trade pub, dug into the issue and has this report. Here's the take away quote.

Scott Burnell, public affairs officer at the NRC has previously told NEI that the Agency has authority regarding licensing of civilian reactors.

“Unless DOE declares something to be a research facility, or unless the executive branch declares something to be a military use, the NRC has overall authority regarding nuclear reactors. A vendor cannot unilaterally claim either of those exemptions, and neither exemption would confer any benefit in an NRC licensing review.”

Prior coverage on this blog

# # #


SteveK9 said...

You don't need NRC approval to build a test reactor at a national laboratory (INL). Would it be possible to build one at a DOE lab prior to any NRC approval?

djysrv said...

Idaho lab managers have licensing the NGNP on the critical path to build one either at Idaho or a customer site.

uvdiv said...

The Augusta Chronicle reported that Mike Navetta, manager of energy park initiatives for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, said officials hope to have the reactor built and operational by 2020.

That's the prototype. Yet the company claims to anticipate commercial deliveries by 2013:

Hyperion Power | About Us | Investors

There is, to put it mildly, a wild gap between a realistic outlook and the stuff they are shoveling their investors.

SteveK9 said...

A little followup from the WNN web site:

'Hyperion told World Nuclear News that as a DoE site, there is leeway to develop nuclear facilities at Savannah River without having fully completed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's usual licensing procedures. Nevertheless, the company stressed that the regulator still be closely involved.'

Mr._Ed said...

If it makes business sense, it will be built! However, a lot of people in the nuclear industry are still skeptical albeit the flashiness of the recent orchestrated media events.

There is something that seems intuitively wrong with the SMR concept and it probably has something to do with the hype about modularity and the application of the concept to tapping electric power markets in the Third World that are just at the frontier of making their breakthrough into the burgeoning world of Capitalism … if only those (sometimes not so stable) governments could just get around that thorny problem of long distance electric transmission.

I’d be concerned whether the SMR developers really know what they’re talking about beyond the flashy ideas of modularity and power markets in the Third World. As a savvy investor I would question what does the South African PBMR failure or China’s long term experience with its HTR-10, but has yet to export its technology, say about SMRs.

Small and reliable seagoing reactors have been around for a long time but the SMR as a realistic business concept has to be delivered, assembled, and operated in a lot of unfriendly places around the world in order to make money. As to concept of modularity, gas turbine units can be quickly assembled but SMRs don’t share the same technical issues as gas turbine plants e.g. thermal feedback and the possibility of fuel failure during their significantly long operating periods of 4 to 20 years that the reactor vessel is expected to remain sealed.

Certainly we wish the SMR developers all the best and we’re glad that it’s on their dime but investors beware!

Skeptic said...

It's unlikely that the Hyperion reactor can be licensed any more easily by the DOE (for deployment at a DOE site) than by NRC.

There is no way that DOE or NRC would allow a commercial prototype lead-cooled fast reactor to be built unless the fuel had been tested first, and the development costs and schedule being claimed by Hyperion are completely unrealistic to accomplish this. Then there is the component development and testing effort, the safety analysis and supporting experiments, and detailed design.

Again, all of these claims are quite unrealistic. But this is the continuing reputation for this company.

Nukemann said...

Hyperion has been a drawing board fantasy for a long time, it would be a fantastic step forward to actually get a prototype built. This could be the jump-start that modular reactors need to become a commercial reality. It would also give the NRC something solid to observe and inspect.