Sometimes, games really do change while few people are watching. That is what happened yesterday when Babcock and Wilcox announced their mPowerTM modular nuclear power plant.
The big difference is not the basic technology – after all, the mPower reactor is a pressurized water reactor using the same kind of coolant, the same kind of heat engine, and even the same kind of fuel elements – though not as long – as two thirds of the nuclear power plants operating today. The important difference is not even the significantly reduced unit size or the lifetime used fuel storage or the five year refueling cycle. The real difference that this system has been announced by a group of people for whom the idea of a “paper reactor” is a long engrained curse.
Admiral Rickover, the man who led the Navy’s nuclear power program for more than 30 years, often railed against “paper reactors” that could do amazing things and provide incredible improvements over the systems that he was busy installing on a series of submarines. Even Amory Lovins has been known to use the memory of Admiral Rickover’s dismissal of these systems as a curse designed to dampen enthusiasm.
Of course, EVERY reactor starts as a paper reactor, but Admiral Rickover’s real point was that the paper should be representative of components that were real and did not require some kind of new invention or discovery before they could be produced. (Some involved in the Nautilus program will admit that sometimes even Rickover broke that rule, like when he decided that zirconium alloys would be the right cladding to protect the fuel from the hot water coolant.)
The company making yesterday’s announcement is full of hard nosed engineers, manufacturers and technicians that generally “do” rather than talk. While most of the people involved in the current energy conversation believe that the US has lost or sold its manufacturing and building experience related to producing useful power from the atom, B&W has continued manufacturing most of the key components of the propulsion systems that power our newest aircraft carriers and submarines. They have also continued to produce steam generators in their US factories. That manufacturing and knowledge base remains in the US.
While B&W is involved in some key aspects of fourth generation reactors like the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP), it has a corporate philosophy of evolving and building. By deciding to jump into the nuclear renaissance with a light water reactor, they believe that they have not taken a step backwards in technology. Instead, they are convinced that they have taken a big step forward in applying what they already know how to do very well to a completely new market for their core competency – delivering high quality manufactured components with a pedigree and integrating them into a useful (fully licensed) and reliable power source on a predictable schedule and at a predictable cost.
Here is a bullet list of the key features of the mPowerTMas I see them:
- Pressurized water reactor (PWR) 17 x 17 fuel bundles
(Shorter than normal, but otherwise standard)
- Five year refueling schedule
- Fuel storage pool large enough for 60 years worth of fuel
- Adaptable to advances in LWR fuel
(MOX or thorium)
- Below grade construction in most locations
- Air cooled condensers
- Tall, thin pressure vessel
- Passive cooling
- Manufactured system with rail delivery to site
- American engineering and manufacturing (avoids queue at Japan Steel Works)
- 125 MWe of electrical power output
(I admit, I was wrong yesterday with my prediction of an even smaller system, but 125 MW is about 10th the size of the AP-1000.)
Knowing what I know about the company’s performance for a very demanding customer, I feel reasonably confident that the timelines announced yesterday (design certification application in 2011, COL application in 2012, full license in 2015 and commercial operation in 2018) are not “stretch goals”, but are reasonably achievable with some margin for the inevitable obstacles.
Though the company made it very clear during yesterday’s press conference that they are not going to be quoted on an expected cost – there are still way too many variables in the equation all with uncertainty ranges – company leaders did state that they expected to be able to produce their 125 MWe modules for a competitive price per kilowatt of capacity.
I have to admit something. While listening to the ten speakers (five from industry and three senators and two congressmen), I got a bit choked up. It was refreshing and even inspiring to hear about manufacturing reliable, affordable, zero emission power plants in North America (B&W maintains some of its manufacturing capability in Canada). I kept thinking about all of those Americans who love to MAKE THINGS and who love to go home at the end of the day knowing that they have produced something more useful than paper, presentations or spreadsheet figures.
I though about all of the people I know who enjoy bending metal and creating items of real precision and beauty. I thought about the importance to the entire economy of having reliable power systems. I thought of how nice it will be for electrical power suppliers to know that when their customers need more power they will be able to order a new unit, secure in the knowledge that it will be delivered on schedule, that it will work when it is needed, and that it’s final price is the same as what the company promised.Watch out world.
We appear to have some leaders left after all.
Update: We also have our share of naysayers and barrier builders. According to Cleveland.com’s article titled Viability of new small nuclear power reactors could be postponed by budget realities, the US NRC has informed B&W that it does not have the capacity to review a new license application. That can change, but it will need some concerted political action to help reorder some priorities and to recognize that squeezing the NRC budget – which is only about $1 billion per year – is no way to try to balance the US budget. Senator Voinovich pledged to continue working on this during his talk at the news conference.