Atomic Show #233 – Innovators discuss advanced reactor development in US

There are a growing number of innovative small companies and a few divisions of larger companies that have recognized that nuclear energy offers solutions to a number of important human challenges. Despite the proclamations by opponents, the Nuclear Renaissance is not any more dead in 2015 than the original Renaissance was dead in 1315.

In the minds of the people who participated in this show, the revival in nuclear energy has only just begun. The ideas and inventions that they envision are almost limitless in potential, even if the first units have not yet received official permission to begin construction.

Providing energy to society is not a fad; it is a business that began about the time that humans discovered how to control fire and will most likely end about the time that human society forgets how to use either fire or fission.

Here is the list of people who participated in the round table about some of the market opportunities, financial challenges, and regulatory obstacles that will be surmounted in the future:

NuScale Power is well down the road towards completing its design and its design certification application to the U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (US NRC). The company’s design traces its roots to a project conducted at Oregon State University called the MASLWR – multi-application small light water reactor. Each NuScale Power Module is a complete 50 MWe generating system, with a natural circulation reactor heat source inside a pressure vessel that is installed in an individual containment and a steam turbine power conversion unit.

The first plant layout that the company is focused on detailing is a 12 module facility that will be able to generate a net power output of 570 MWe. Mike describes NuScale’s design status, tells us a little about the first project and the first customer, and gives us some information about the location of the plant and its estimated completion date.

NuScale plans to file its design certification application during the second half of 2016. It has 600 people working on its team, it is spending about $12 million/month, and it expects to have its first plant operating sometime in 2023. It sees its primary initial market as providing a replacement option for utilities that have decided to retire baseload coal plants instead of updating them to comply with a variety of air quality related regulations.

Terrestrial Energy is at an earlier stage of developing a molten salt, liquid fuel reactor that will transfer its heat to a steam plant secondary. David LeBlanc describes how the company is developing a variety of different models with various electricity production capacities as it seeks its lead customers. It will be focusing initially on the Canadian market.

There are several potential target customer types including northern remote communities, power plants for remote mining and industrial facilities, and process heat consumers. Canon Bryan describes some of the financial issues that are important in the effort to attract private capital to their development project.

Westinghouse Electric Company, the designer of the AP1000 passively safe large light water reactor, developed a smaller version of that popular design to the point where it was within a year of being ready to file a design certification application with the NRC.

Since that is a big step requiring a substantial investment of financial, engineering and managerial resources, the company took a hard look at near term market interest and determined about a year ago that it would put its design on the shelf to wait for a more interested market. Robin Rickman, the Director of Westinghouse’s SMR program describes his company’s strategy, its continued strong interest and participation in small nuclear reactor committees, and its readiness to move forward once an investment decision is made.

Per Peterson is a professor at the University of California Berkeley. He talked about his university’s role in teaching, inspiring innovative thinking and seizing on modern technology opportunities to do what it can to help train a new generation of innovative, capable technical leaders for a rejuvenated nuclear energy industry.

Jacob DeWitte is the CEO of UPower, which has decided to design what they call a micro reactor sized to provide power to remote communities that are not currently served by the electrical power grid. Their 1-2 MW reactors sound incredibly tiny, even compared to the modest sizes of other SMRs finding their way into the market, but 1 MWe generator requires a 1,341 horsepower motor to turn it. That is a fair sized diesel engine, which is the power system that DeWitte sees as his company’s target competition.

We talked about the challenge of getting a license to build and operate a new reactor in the United States, even one that uses traditional light water reactor fuel technology. As the group acknowledged, it is not clear now how the US NRC will succeed in reviewing documents and issuing construction and operating licenses to machines that use entirely different technology like molten salt coolant or liquid fueled reactors.

We also touched on a concept that was discussed during the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee meeting in December, which is the possibility that the government might benefit by hosting prototype or commercial demonstration plants at one or more of its existing nuclear energy laboratory sites. The prime locations for such a cooperative project would be Savannah River Site, Idaho National Laboratory, or Hanford National Laboratory. Other possibilities not mentioned on the show include Oak Ridge or Los Alamos.

I worked hard to improve the sound quality for this show and to ask the guests to make better use of their mute buttons when they were not talking. I think the effort paid off; I’d like to hear your opinion. This topic is also important enough and interesting enough to generate a good deal of discussion, so the comment thread will be open for one week.

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