In the March 23, 2010 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Steven Chu published an op-ed piece titled America’s New Nuclear Option that describes the Administration’s growing interest in smaller nuclear energy systems that can be produced in factories and delivered nearly complete to sites around the country and around the world. Here is a quote from that editorial:
As this paper recently reported, one of the most promising areas is small modular reactors (SMRs). If we can develop this technology in the U.S. and build these reactors with American workers, we will have a key competitive edge.
Small modular reactors would be less than one-third the size of current plants. They have compact designs and could be made in factories and transported to sites by truck or rail. SMRs would be ready to “plug and play” upon arrival.
If commercially successful, SMRs would significantly expand the options for nuclear power and its applications. Their small size makes them suitable to small electric grids so they are a good option for locations that cannot accommodate large-scale plants. The modular construction process would make them more affordable by reducing capital costs and construction times.
Their size would also increase flexibility for utilities since they could add units as demand changes, or use them for on-site replacement of aging fossil fuel plants.
Those are some terrific words, but the message loses some of its impact when the numbers are revealed later down the page. In the 2011 budget, the Administration requested just $39 million for a program aimed specifically at small reactors. That amount of money would not even pay for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission costs of reviewing the license for a single nuclear energy system design certification. In an agency whose total budget request is in excess of $28,000 million ($28 billion), a $39 million line item gets lost in the decimal dust.
There is an old saying that is appropriate here – “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. The effort by Dr. Chu to publish a piece favorable to small nuclear energy systems in the Wall Street Journal is commendable, but the tiny slice of resource support indicates that there is still a lot of work to be done to enable the technology to reach the market, especially when compared to the massive number of dollars available for industrial wind deployment as a gift from taxpayers to companies like BP, Chevron, GE, FPL, and Siemens.
It is beyond comprehension to me that it will take us “about 10 years” (in Dr. Chu’s words) to license and deploy smaller, light water reactors that use essentially the same technology that we have been using successfully for nearly 60 years. We have the knowledge base and the manufacturing capability now; we should build several plants in controlled locations so we can show the regulators how their safety systems work to keep the public protected.
Dr. Chu’s op-ed piece concludes with some additional good words about the future potential of systems using high temperature gas – one of my favorites – and fast neutrons for better fuel economy plus the use of modern modeling and simulation techniquest. Dr. Chu’s head is in the right place, but he could use some encouragement to move more aggressively to take advantage of what is currently an American strong suit.
There are some Americans who know more than anyone else about what it takes to build durable, safe, secure, small reactors that use light water as a heat transfer and moderating fluid and steam as the power section working fluid. We can improve the economics through well understood principles of series production. The Department of Energy’s budget request for FY2011 currently includes more than $1,000 million for small, light water reactors whose allowed market is limited to military vessels. It would seem that technologies used in that program could be used as the basis for prototype licenses for systems like the mPowerTM and NuScale in a process that could take far less than 10 years.
There are several places in the US (Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico and Alaska) where early adoption of such systems could dramatically reduce the cost of electricity, reduce the dependence on a fragile fossil fuel tether, and improve its production cleanliness. Success in those locations could lead to successes in similar markets around the world and perhaps even in system refinements allow competitive costs in more traditional electrical power production markets. What are we waiting for?