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Where are the small nuclear reactors we were promised?

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For more than a decade, we’ve heard that small reactors could be a big part of the future of nuclear power.

Because of its size, the small modular reactors (SMR) to solve some of the main challenges of conventional nuclear power, since the plants would be faster and cheaper to build, and safer to operate.

That future may have gotten a little closer. Last January, Oregon, USA-based NuScale reached several important milestones for its planned SMRs, receiving final approval of the US federal government for its reactor design. Other companies, such as Kairos Power and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, are also pursuing commercial SMRs, but NuScale’s reactor is the first to reach this late stage, clearing one of the final regulatory hurdles before the company can launch its build reactors in the US

SMRs, like those proposed by NuScale, could provide power when and where it is needed in plants that are easy to grow and manage. This technology could help curb climate change, replacing power plants that run on fossil fuels, including coal.

While SMRs promise to speed up nuclear power construction timelines, the road so far has been fraught with delays and rising costs. The road ahead for NuScale still stretches several years into the future, revealing how many optimizations still need to be implemented before this type of nuclear power can be built quickly and efficiently.

become more small ones

NuScale’s SMR generates electricity using a process similar to that used in today’s nuclear power plants: the reactor splits atoms in a pressurized core, emitting heat. That heat can be used to turn water vapor, which turns a turbine and generates electricity. The biggest difference is the size of the reactors.

In the past, nuclear power plants were large infrastructure projects, called megaprojects, worth billions of dollars. “If it’s over a billion dollars, a project usually fails,” says Patrick White, project manager at the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, a think tank focused on nuclear power.

For example, two additional units to the existing power plant are being built in Georgia (USA). vote. Each of the two planned units will have a capacity of more than 1,000 megawatts, enough to power more than a million homes. The reactors were supposed to start operating in 2017, but have not yet been commissioned, and the total cost of the project has doubled to more than 30,000 million dollars (28,033 million euros) since construction began ten years ago.

Instead, NuScale plans to build reactor modules with a capacity of less than 100 megawatts. When these modules are assembled into power plants, they will add up to several hundred megawatts, less than one unit at Vogtle’s plant. SMR plants with a capacity of a few hundred megawatts would power hundreds of thousands of homes, similar to a medium-sized coal-fired power plant in the US.

Although the Vogtle plant is located on a site that covers more than 3,000 acres, the SMR project would require NuScale. 26 hectares of land.

It could make it easier to build smaller nuclear power facilities and help reduce costs as companies standardize reactor designs. “That’s the benefit: it becomes more of a routine, a standard project,” he says. Jacopo Buongiornodirector of the Center for Advanced Nuclear Power Systems at MIT.

Those reactors could also be safer, since the systems needed to keep them cool, as well as those needed to shut them down in an emergency, could be simpler.

Red tape solves

The problem with these potential benefits is that, so far, most of them are still potential. Demonstration projects have been launched in some parts of the world, and China is the first country to Connecting SMR to the electricity grid in 2021. Last month, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy signed business contracts for a plant in Ontario (Canada) that could come online in the mid-1990s 2030. NuScale is also running its projects i Romania and Poland.

However, there are no SMRs yet in place in the US, in part due to the lengthy regulatory process by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the independent federal agency.

Nuclear power is the only energy source in the United States that has its own regulatory agency, that extra oversight means that no detail is noticed, and it will take a long time to advance nuclear projects. “It’s about large and complex projects“, declares Kathryn Huff, Assistant Secretary of the US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy. The DOE helps fund SMR projects and supports research, but does not oversee nuclear regulations.

In 2008, NuScale began working towards regulatory approval and submitted its official application to the NRC in 2016. So in 2020, when it received design approval for its reactor four years later, the company claimed that the regulatory process cost him 500 million dollars (467 million euros), and that the company had provided approximately 2 million pages of necessary documents to the NRC.

More than two years after finalizing details and agency approval, the NRC published its final decision on the NuScale reactor design in January 2023. The final ruling went into effect on February 21, authorizing the NuScale design for a module reactor that generates 50 MW of electricity.

Obtaining this final design decision would only require NuScale to obtain approval for one reactor site and complete final safety reviews before construction could begin. So, in theory, NuScale has already cleared the most stringent regulatory steps build a reactor.

“It’s great progress, and it should be celebrated as a milestone,” emphasized Buongiorno. However, the expert believes that it would be a mistake to minimize what is to come: “There is nothing easy or fast when it comes to the NRC.”

Although there is an additional problem: NuScale wants to modify its reactor modules. As the company went through the lengthy regulatory process, researchers were still working on the design of the reactor. During the presentation and planning process, the company discovered that its reactors could achieve better performance.

“​​​​We found that we could actually produce more power with the same reactor, exactly the same size,” says José Reyes, NuScale co-founder and CTO. Instead of 50 MW, the company found that each module could produce 77 MW.

So the company changed course. For its first power generation plant, to be built at the Idaho National Laboratory (USA), NuScale plans to unite six of the largest capacity reactors so that the plant’s capacity 462 MW in total.

This increased power requires some adjustment, but the layout of the module is basically the same. However, that meant the company had to resubmit the updated plans to the NRC, which it did in January. It could take up to two years for the agency to approve the modified plans and for the company to move forward to site approval, Reyes says.

A long road ahead

In 2017, NuScale planned to have its first power plant in Idaho up and running and generating electricity by 2026. That deadline has passed. delayed until 2029.

Meanwhile, the costs are higher than when the regulatory process began. In January, NuScale announced that the planned price of electricity from the Idaho power plant project had increased from 58 dollars (54 euros) to 89 dollars (83 euros) per megawatt-hour. That’s more expensive than most other current sources of electricity, including solar and wind power, as well as most natural gas plants.

The price increases would be even higher without substantial federal investment. The US Department of Energy has already committed more than $1 billion to the project; and is included in the Inflation Reduction Law, which was approved last year 30 dollars/MWh (about 28 euros/MWh) in credits for nuclear power plants.

Costs for many large construction projects have increased, as inflation has hit the price of steel and other building materials, and interest rates have risen. But the hikes also show what often happens with similar engineering projects, according to Buongiorno: Companies may promise quick results and cheap energy, but “There will always be these initial units. something behind schedule, and slightly over budget“.

If the price increases continue, the participants may withdraw from the NuScale project, which could be a danger. Regarding the SMRs in the works,”I won’t believe it’s real until I see it in action“, says Buongiorno.

The real promise of SMRs will only come when the time comes to build the second, third, fifth and 100th reactors, notes DOE’s Huff; and companies and regulators alike are learning how to speed up the process to get to that point. But there are advantages to SMRs only theoretical until the reactors are running and providing electricity without the need for fossil fuels.

“It will be true when the electrons reach the lattice,” concludes Huff.

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