Westinghouse and Holtec offer “passively safe” light water reactor designs
Two new small modular reactor designs were announced this week, both using scaled down light water reactor (LWR) designs. The use of conventional reactor technologies well understood by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may speed up approval for commercial use.
Westinghouse unveiled a 200 MW PWR derived from its much larger 1,100 MW AP 1000. The reactor has all of its primary components inside the reactor vessel. Westinghouse describes the reactor as “passively safe,” but unlike some other SMR LWR designs, Westinghouse uses pumps to move coolant.
The reactor is intended to be built in a factory and shipped by rail to a customer site. According to a company press statement, Kate Jackson, Westinghouse VP for R&D in Pittsburgh, PA, said that the design is being developed in response to customer demand for a smaller and less expensive reactor.
Utilities have been cautious about betting the company on a $ 6 billion reactor like the AP1000. If the SMR can be offered at $3,000 Kw, a 200 MW unit would cost just 10% of the price of a large one or $600 million. Under a pay-as-you-go business plan, units could be added in modular fashion as revenue from the first reactor pays the way for the next one and so on.
The New Jersey firm is a late entry into the U.S. race for market share among small modular reactors. The firm unveiled limited information about the HI-SMUR-140 which presumably refers to a 140 MW LWR design. A company spokesperson declined to provide more information, or any images, beyond a press release.
What is known is that the reactor is designed to be “passively safe.” It is to be operated by gravity flow in an underground silo with no reactor coolant pumps. The press statement claims that there would be no need for emergency or off-site shut down power.
Holtec also said that like other SMRs, this one would be “shop manufactured and capable of having the components delivered by conventional surface transportation modes. Holtec also said it would develop its own supply chain of components to build the new reactor.
Holtec is privately held and does not report earnings or sales. A company spokesperson declined to provide information on investors. The press statement said the firm is funding development of the reactor from internal cash flow.
Big nuclear utilities skeptical of SMRs
Platts reports that large nuclear utilities like Progress are not convinced of the economic viability of SMRs. Bill Johnson, CEO of Progress Energy (NYSE:PGN), which just merged with Duke Energy, told a Platts conference in Washington, DC, this week he thinks the market for SMR’s won’t mature for another two decades.
Johnson said that regulator inflexibility by the NRC could impose unacceptable costs on SMRs in areas of security, staffing, and safety. He said these costs issues are, “going to make it difficult.”
Johnson added that Progress will be more likely to replace its aging coal-fired plants with ones that burn natural gas rather than build new nuclear reactors.
The firm told Bloomberg wire service it will push back plans to build new reactors in North Carolina and Florida by at least a decade due to costs, regulatory uncertainty, and lower demand for electricity. He cited the cost of a new twin AP1000 power station in North Carolina at $13 billion.
Energy Dept 2012 budget calls for $500 million for SMRs
The New York Times reports in an in-depth article that the Department of Energy (DOE) 2012 budget includes $100 million/year for five years to help develop small modular reactors.
DOE is also asking for funds to pay for half the licensing costs of SMRs when the designs are submitted for review to the NRC.
The Energy Department is also interested in the use of SMRs at military bases.
DOE’s budget request for 2012 may be dead on arrival since Congress has still not passed the FY 2011 appropriation. House Republicans are threatening to make deep cuts in the 2011 omnibus appropriation bill in an effort to set a precedent for 2012 funding decisions.
Commerce calls for tax credits
The Commerce Dept. issued a statement this week calling for tax credits for development of SMRs. Dow Jones News said that a Commerce Dept report called for civil nuclear reactor projects in tax-credit programs and set aside "a portion of future nuclear loan guarantee funds to support the rebuilding of U.S. nuclear capacity."
The government also can foster trade agreements to help U.S. firms export the technology to 123 international markets, the report said.
"This is the future of nuclear energy, and I personally am excited at the potential it holds for our country not only in terms of energy security and reduced carbon emissions but also in terms of U.S. jobs and economic growth," Nicole Y. Lamb-Hale, the Commerce Department's assistant secretary for manufacturing and services, said.
Several challenges to eventual deployment of SMRs include intense foreign competition from state-owned enterprises, the lack of a global nuclear liability regime, and the erosion of U.S. nuclear manufacturing capacity.
SMRs at military bases
A paper on SMRs published by the National Defense University explores the application of small reactors at military bases.
Richard B. Andres and Hanna L. Breetz write that without Department of Defense (DOD) intervention, the United States runs the risk of a small reactor market dominated by foreign countries, further eroding U.S. commercial nuclear power capabilities and damaging U.S. control over nuclear energy proliferation.
DOD has recently expressed interest in the possibility of integrating small nuclear reactors on military bases as part of its strategy to “island” bases from the fragile civilian power grid.
Small nuclear reactor technology offers a host of benefits over traditional large reactors—namely, a smaller footprint, scalable design, factory-based construction, portability, and passive safety features.
DOD has a chance to become a “first mover” in the emerging small reactor market; by providing assistance and guidance to the private sector, DOD can ensure that successful designs meet its operational needs.
Richard B. Andres is a Senior Fellow at the National Defense University. Hanna L. Breetz is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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