Thursday, March 10, 2011

Three senators offer bill to build small reactors

The Senate Nuclear Power 2021 Act promotes design standards

six packSens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Mark Udall (D-CO) introduced legislation to direct the Department of Energy to develop innovative, low-cost nuclear reactors.

The Nuclear Power 2021 Act (S. 512) proposes a program to design and certify small modular reactors (< 300 megawatts) which can be built and operated in combination with similar reactors at a single site. This is the so-called "six pack" option.

Second bite at the apple

All three senators strongly endorsed the legislation which is a repeat of the same bill that was unanimously approved by the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee in 2009. The new bill is also co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Crapo, (R-Idaho) and Sen. Mary Landrieu, (D-Louisiana)

Sen. Bingaman: “Modular reactors make sense because they do not require as large up-front capital investment as conventional reactors. They will keep construction costs down at a time when the expense of building a traditional plant has become so high.

Sen. Murkowski: “This legislation will help address existing challenges and overcome roadblocks by making the development, licensing, and deployment of small reactors a priority.”

Sen. Udall: “Small reactors have the potential to make nuclear power more cost-efficient and secure. This bill will help bring small modular reactors to the market."

Cost sharing between government and industry

Under the Bingaman-Murkowski-Udall bill, the Federal effort would be cost-shared with the private sector and selected under a competitive merit review process that emphasizes efficiency, cost, safety and proliferation resistance.

The Nuclear Power 2021 Act authorizes the Secretary of Energy to work in a public-private partnership to:

  • Develop a standard design for two modular reactors, one of which will not be more than 50 MW;
  • Obtain a design certification from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for each design by 2018; and
  • Obtain a combined operating license from the Commission by 2021.

Design limits?

hyperion mini_nuclear A spokesman for the committee said the bill language limiting one of the designs to 50 MW was in the original 2009 bill and came from a recommendation by the National Academy of Sciences.

Only two of the pending designs are that small. There are substantial design differences between them.

One is NuScale Power's LWR design at 45 MW. The conventional LWR design uses uranium fuel enriched to about 5% U235.

The other is Hyperion Power’s 25 MW fast reactor is being developed in New Mexico. (right). The Hyperion reactor is reported to be specifying a uranium oxide fuel enriched to up to 19% U235. It is reported to be considering using a lead-bismuth metal-cooled system.

The senate committee spokesman declined to comment whether any special reference to NuScale or Hyperion is intended by the limit on power rating in the proposed legislation for one of standard designs. The other reference design has to be less than 300MW according to the committee spokesman.

SMR market developments

Other small modular reactor (SMR) designs include B&W’s mPower 125 MW LWR and several 100-300 MW designs including GE-Hitachi’s PRISM reactor at just under 300 MW.

TVA is working with B&W to develop a 125 SMR project at the Clinch River site near Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Several other SMR developers are pursuing development of an energy park at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Smaller reactors can be less capital intensive than the larger 1000-megawatt reactors currently being licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They also have the potential to be built in a modular and step-wise fashion. Finally, because of their lower total capital cost, they would allow utilities to get into the nuclear game without betting the company.

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crf said...

I'm not sure of the US legislative process. Does this bill include money to fund this effort, or would the DOE have to make room in its existing budget?

donb said...

It would be interesting to know the details of the bill. It would be great for the DOE to support building the small reactors, but the NRC has stomped their feet saying that any such reactors must come through their (expensive and lengthy) process first.

Even if the reactor designs were approved in a timely and economical manner by the NRC, it would not surprise me one bit if they would then turn around and require an independent, fully outfitted and staffed, separate control room for each reactor. This would negate many of the economies of multiple reactors on one site. The NRC would probably blow a gasket in their approval process if someone dared propose multiple reactors driving one steam turbine.

Joffan said...

I applaud the general concept, and I'm glad to see more senators putting their name to this kind of effort. However I feel the timescales are supremely unambitious and I fear that the "competitive merit review process" is a booby-trap which has the potential to kill the entire effort.

And of course the last version withered and died in the dark corners of Congress, so I can't get too excited.

Robert Steinhaus said...

It is nice to get R&D help from DOE on SMRs.
To actually build SMRs we will need some regulatory relief from NRC. Thus far NRCs record is not one reactor project has been initiated and then gone on to become a successful operating reactor under their regulatory supervision. Not one reactor project has made it through the torturous regulatory path at NRC in 35 years since NRC, as an agency, opened their doors. If NRC cannot seem to license commercial LWRs, which they understand down to the last bolt and flat washer, how will they do at granting licenses for novel SMRs which include exotic nuclear technology (like Hyperion's small sodium cooled fast reactor)?

Anonymous said...


Do small reactors have lower total capital cost or rather lower asset at risk ?

I know that the reality of economies of scale are very debatable for nuclear reactors but I'd tend to think that small nuclear reactors would tend to be more expensive per kW.