In the past half dozen years, the term “small modular reactor (SMR)” has entered the nuclear energy lexicon. Numerous projects have been initiated to develop various concepts, all aimed at producing nuclear reactor based power plants that are small enough to be built in a factory setting to take advantage of concepts like series manufacturing and interchangeable parts. Investors have been putting real dollars into the projects; many of the project teams working on SMRs now number in the several hundreds of people.
The ideas that are encouraging interest in smaller, manufactured reactors are not really “new” ideas; they were fundamental concepts that enabled the Industrial Revolution. They have helped provide an increasingly abundant lifestyle to a rapidly growing population of people. Series production results in more finished products at an ever lower overall cost. Series manufacturing ideas have been tentatively applied to nuclear energy; they were a key driver of the Army Nuclear Power Program, but that program was abandoned when budgets got tight as a result of the Vietnam War and President Johnson’s “guns and butter” decisions.
The US Navy has been manufacturing nuclear reactor-heated steam plants in series production runs for more than 5 decades, but that organization does not like to share its technology with anyone. As a result of the close-hold nature of Naval Reactors, ship propulsion plant production rates have not approached an economical level, though they got close during the era when there were five nuclear qualified shipyards turning out Sturgeon class fast attack submarines and “forty-one for freedom” boomers with essentially identical S5W reactor plants.
Somewhere around 2009, the interest in SMRs started really heating up in the US. Numerous conferences have been organized to enable designers, potential customers, parts suppliers, government regulators, and academic researchers to discuss a wide range of issues associated with starting a new industry from scratch. Few people think that the process is going to be easy, but many believe it is worthwhile to engage in critical thinking and issue resolution as early as possible and as frequently as necessary. (Some of us are eagerly anticipating the day when there are at least as many SMRs as there are SMR conferences.)
I’ve attended a reasonably large portion of the conferences and gained an increasing level of confidence that there will be some level of success in introducing the technology. There are going to be winners and losers; some early sprinters have already fallen out of the race. Because of the limitations of time and travel, most of the SMR conferences that I have attended have been in Washington, DC, and have thus been more heavily attended by politicians and marketers with somewhat less representation by people professionally engaged in design, manufacturing, or material research.
During the period from October 30 – November 1, 2013, I am planning to attend an SMR conference in Idaho Falls, ID that has the ingredients of something quite different than a Washington-based meeting. Organized by Active Communications International, the event is sponsored by Westinghouse and Premier Technology, a firm that I had not heard of before receiving the conference announcement. (Note: Atomic Insights is a media sponsor for the conference.)
Based on the Premier Technology’s description in the conference brochure, it seems to have a serious interest in growing its business. I suspect that its sponsorship of From Concept to Reality: Small Modular Reactors means that it has identified SMRs as a prime opportunity for expansion.
Premier Technology is a privately owned company based in Southeast Idaho. The company was founded in 1996 with a primary focus on manufacturing. Since that time, Premier has grown to be a full service engineering, manufacturing and construction management company employing nearly 300 highly skilled professionals. Premier’s reputation of delivering on-time, quality work has gained the trust of its clients affording them opportunities to serve as a resource for a wide variety of clients.
- Our versatility and experience make us one of the leading custom manufacturers in the nation
- Our ability to create design-to-deliver projects gives our customers a higher quality product
- Our research and development program has enabled us to receive a patent, as well as discover better ways to solve industry challenges
- Through the use of science and technology, we have become a leader in global markets due to our innovative ideas and solutions
The conference schedule is intriguing, not the least because the first day of the event will provide attendees the opportunity to tour the Idaho National Laboratory, a facility that was once known as the National Reactor Testing Station. It is a place with a long history of successful construction and operation of innovative nuclear reactors; it could play an important role in the process of testing and design refinements that will be required to make SMRs into a successful industrial product.
After the tour there is a welcome reception with a scheduled screening of Pandora’s Promise in the historic Colonial Theater, which first opened in 1919.
The next two days will include talks and discussions about the following topics:
- Beyond design: developing a commercial development strategy for SMRs
- Examining the market drivers and overcoming the barriers to deployment
- View from the operator: how utilities are responding to natural gas price signals
- The business of SMRs: state-by-state regulation and its role in domestic deployment
- Examining the domestic and export markets: where is the demand for the supply?
- The economic and technological drivers behind SMR deployments
- The federal outlook: who can help, who can hurt?
- Building the utility business case for SMRs
- The economic development potential for American suppliers
- Public opinion and its role in an emerging SMR market
- Workforce readiness for advanced manufacturing of SMRs
- Perspectives from America’s leading nuclear scientists and engineers
- Private companies and public agencies: how to get the most value from both
I’m looking forward to meeting up with some long-time friends and learning more about the investments in time and money being made to turn smaller, manufactured, atomic fission-heated generating system concepts into real products that can improve the lives of millions of electricity and heat customers.