On Monday, May 17, 2010, Bloomberg Businessweek published an article by Jeremy van Loon and Alex Morales titled Fridge-Sized Nuclear Reactors to Tap $135 Billion Power Market. (Update: The article headline has been changed to now read Miniature Nuclear Plants Seek Approval to Work in U.S (Update1); the link still works.)
The article focuses on John Deal, CEO of Hyperion and his effort to build sealed units that can operate in remote locations for 5-8 years before needing to have the core replaced with a fresh load of fuel. However, it also describes Toshiba’s 4S (Super-Safe, Small, Simple) project, which may first be implemented in Galena, Alaska (Note: Until I inserted that link, I had forgotten that it has been more than 5 years since I first wrote about that project. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the company might be submitting its license application later this year.)
The article mentions in passing that there are at least six projects making progress in the area and lists NuScale, Rosatom and Westinghouse. There is a subject mentioned in the article – twice – that should have raised questions on the part of the reporters, but does not seem to have done so.
Certifying and building small reactors will require the same multi-year licensing procedure necessary for bigger plants. And since no small-scale systems are operating, there’s no track record to know how well they will work.
Then, just a couple of paragraphs later:
So far, no manufacturer has sought certification for any small reactor, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Formal approvals would probably take three to five years, the same as for bigger reactors, said Scott Burnell, a spokesman for the commission.
Small reactors have been used in U.S. submarines since the USS Nautilus was commissioned in 1954. Russia’s Rosatom Corp. is using its experience on submarines and icebreakers to develop atomic plants for floating barges.
The first question that I would have asked if reporting this story is “Why should it take as long to certify a small system with fewer components as a large, complex system?” Aren’t the required reviews based on investigating the pieces and parts, operating assumptions, procedures and understanding how they all fit together? It would seem logical that less stuff would require less review. A follow on to that question would be – does a small reactor manufacturer have to go through the NRC or are there more rapid review systems available in other parts of the world where the reactors might be useful?
The second topic that begs a question is the statement that there are no small-scale systems operating when there is also a paragraph stating that small reactors have been used in U. S. submarines and icebreakers for more than 50 years. Huh?
After reading the article, I sent a note to the author thanking him for covering the topic and mentioning that he left out a few interesting projects like B&W’s mPowerTM. Oh well, I guess you cannot expect complete coverage of a complex topic in such a short article.
If you are interested in small reactors on a professional basis, do not forget to mark your calendars and register for the Platts sponsored Small Modular Reactor meeting being held in Washington, DC on June 28 and 29.
Update: (Posted May 18, 2010 at 1:23 am) Bloomberg Businessweek has updated their article with data from the IAEA about energy demand growth and also changed the headline to Miniature Nuclear Plants Seek Approval to Work in U.S (Update1)