The project is a partnership between a Department of Energy national laboratory and an entrepreneurial start-up financed with venture capital
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
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. 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?
Is 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
DOE’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
- March 8, 2010 - Competitive scenario for NGNP
- November 17, 2009 – Hyperion reveals reactor design
- September 3, 2009 – What’s a small reactor like you doing in a market like this?
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